The demonstration took place on Wednesday in the southern Iraqi town of Samawa, a day after similar protests in the southern towns of Najaf and Karbala. They mark growing support for Grand Ayat Allah al-Sistani's rejection of US plans for the country.

The latest demonstration came less than 48 hours after the arrival of a contingent of Japanese troops on a humanitarian mission to the poverty-hit town.

The Japanese troops stayed out of sight as crowds peacefully chanted "We are all with al-Sistani and we want no one else".

"We want elections, and the appointment of the right people for the right positions," said Abd al-Amir Kazim al-Khafaji, vice chancellor of science for the university of Muthanna province, of which Samawa is the capital.

Immediate elections

"Al-Sistani's position is right. He showed the world that it is necessary to use in Iraq the same democratic methods used throughout the world, only they can be legitimate," said Naji Kashi, another university employee.

Al-Sistani is a reclusive cleric revered by many of Iraq's Shia, who make up 53% (Source:Encylopaedia Britannica) of the population. He has warned of mass demonstrations and a general strike unless elections are held to install a provisional leadership by 30 June.

Washington considered al-Sistani
a ''moderate'' before the invasion

He has demanded immediate elections, despite claims by both the occupation authorities and the United Nations that Iraq currently lacks the means to carry out such a poll.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell and US-appointed interim Governing Council president Adnan Pachachi on Tuesday reaffirmed their plan to install a new government by June's end, but Washington says there may be room for refinements to the plan.

On Monday UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said the world body was assessing whether to send a team to Iraq to investigate if it was practical to hold elections before the June power-transfer deadline.

Sunni, Kurdish opposition

Iraqi Sunni leaders have, however, rejected calls for early elections on Wednesday, insisting they could not be held under the occupation forces.

"We cannot trust elections or any other power transfer plans as long as the occupation is in place and the people are not free," said the Committee of Iraqi Ulema or religious scholars.

The committee was set up following captured Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's overthrow in April. It represents the country's Sunni population.

"Certain parties benefit from their links with the occupying forces and have to hand plans with which they can affect elections and win them"

Committee of Iraqi Ulema

"The total control exerted by the occupying forces on the country and the methods at their disposal give them the opportunity to sway elections in favour of their interests," said the Sunni committee in a statement.

"Certain parties benefit from their links with the occupying forces and have to hand plans with which they can affect elections and win them," it said.

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the Kurdish minority supported the US-led war. The Shia, who were repressed under Saddam, also looked forward to a greater political role after his toppling.

Kurdish representatives in the Governing Council also said on Wednesday that they oppose early elections.

Mosul attacks

Meanwhile, in the northern city of Mosul, six Iraqis, three US soldiers and a Turkish driver were wounded when their patrol was struck by an explosion, said police officer Fathi Ahmad Abd al-Jabbar.

Akram Zubdaidid, a doctor at Mosul's general hospital said the Turkish driver was in serious condition. Two Iraqis were also "badly injured". 

Injured student Saad Khalad, 22, described how the powerful blast lifted a Humvee vehicle off the road. "I was in a bus when the explosion happened. I saw an American Humvee literally launched in the air, then I found myself in hospital," he said.