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Iraq marchers want 'elections now'

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Thousands of demonstrators marched through the southern town of Basra calling for elections and more international involvement in Iraq, a British military spokesman said.

The spokesman characterized Thursday's event as a peaceful political rally rather than a protest, with about 3,000 people taking part.

The participants rallied in response to a call by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's foremost Shiite cleric, for an interim National Assembly to be elected, instead of being selected under a regional caucus system as the United States had favored.

A weekend newspaper ad from Sistani said, "We want the elections to be popular and free; that is not by appointment."

One witness described the demonstrations as "anti-coalition."

Banners carried by the crowd read: "Elections now" and "Where is the U.N.?"

Since Sistani's call for direct elections, the Bush administration has been adjusting its original plan for a caucus-elected transitional assembly to address concerns of Iraqis.

One administration official told CNN on Monday the United States is working on a "hybrid plan," under which direct elections would be held in Baghdad and surrounding towns, an area dominated by Shiites, while caucuses would be held in the other areas of the country.

Such a compromise, the official said, would placate the Shiites while allowing diverse representation from around the country.

The coalition is scheduled to turn over power to an interim government by June 30.

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