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NAJAF, Iraq - Iraq's top Shiite cleric is considering demanding a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. and foreign troops after a democratically elected government takes office next year, according to associates of the Iranian-born cleric.
If the Americans and their coalition partners do not comply, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani would use peaceful means such as mass street protests to step up pressure for a pullout schedule, according to two associates of the cleric.
The associates spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media. They are in regular contact with al-Sistani and call routinely on the 76-year-old cleric at his home in the holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad.
The reclusive al-Sistani rarely leaves his home and limits his public comments to religious decrees, or fatwas. He has steadfastly refused to meet with any American officials since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
But al-Sistani's influence among the majority Shiite community is vast, and a public call for such a timetable would put enormous pressure on Washington to comply.
On Dec. 15, Iraqi voters will select the country's first full-term parliament since Saddam's ouster. A new government will be formed afterward.
Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiites who lectures on national security affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, Calif., said al-Sistani's intention to call for a withdrawal timetable has been an "open secret" for some time.
"He will not do it in an anti-American way, but in a pro-Iraqi way," Nasr said.