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Since 1st March, 1999
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Sadr no to polls if US stays

Baghdad, Sept. 27 (Reuters): Rebel Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr will not take part in elections scheduled for January as long as US forces remain in the country, an aide said today.

'We as Sadr's movement will not take part in the elections held under the shadow of occupation,' Sheikh Abdul Hadi al-Daraji said. 'Sadr movement will not nominate any candidates,' he added.

He also expected Sadr's followers to boycott the elections.

The announcement contradicts a previous statement by another Sadr aide, who in August said the firebrand Shia street preacher would field candidates and campaign on a platform calling for the withdrawal of US troops in Iraq.

Sadr has seen his popularity rise among nationalist clerics and a generation of poor Shias after challenging the Iraqi government and US-led forces under his 'no democracy under occupation' stand.

After three weeks of fighting between Sadr's Mehdi army and US and Iraqi forces in the southern city of Najaf, Sadr agreed to a peace initiative brokered by Iraq's most influential religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

As part of the deal, Sistani pressured Sadr into agreeing to support the elections. But Daraji said any elections held under the occupation will not be fair and will only serve the interests of the occupation.

'We believe that the elections under occupation will not be a fair and free one, we believe this election will be a forged one,' he said.

Sadr, who is in his 30s, draws his following from young disenfranchised Shias, who remain distrustful of Iraq's political system since Saddam Hussein was toppled. He has also challenged Iraq's Shia clerical establishment.

'When we, the religious authorities, reject the elections then those who follow us should not take part in it and they will not,' Daraji said. 'What we want and our number one priority is a free Iraq so when Iraq is free and occupation is out then Sadr's movement will take part in the political life in Iraq,' he said.

Worsening security in Iraq has raised concerns about whether the elections can go ahead. Senior Washington officials have clashed over whether the vote should cover the whole country or be held only where security can be guaranteed.

In an interview with London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Iraq;s Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said elections should take place in January even if 'a few thousand people' cannot vote.

Car bombing

A car bomb killed three Iraqi National Guards in Mosul and rebels mortared a police academy in Baghdad today.

In fresh attacks against Iraq's beleaguered security forces aimed at destabilising the US-backed government, insurgents detonated the bomb near a National Guard patrol in Mosul, 390 km north of Baghdad.

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