Iraq's leading Shiite cleric Friday called a halt to mass protests against US plans for handing over power, offering much-needed breathing room to the coalition as it counted the cost of a new wave of rebel attacks on Iraqi civilians.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued the decree to give time to a UN study on the viability of free elections, a week after threatening to launch a civil unrest campaign unless polls were held before the end of June - when the coalition wants to install a new government.
Tens of thousands of Shiites have taken to the streets over the past week to back Sistani's demands, which in turn prompted Washington to seek UN support for its plan which envisions elections only in late 2005.
Following a meeting Monday with US overseer in Iraq Paul Bremer and members of the Iraqi Governing Council, UN chief Kofi Annan said he would consider sending a mission to study whether elections could be held sooner than scheduled.
It is vital "to wait until the United States and the UN clarify their positions on the election procedure to choose the nature of the next Iraqi government," Sistani spokesman Sheikh Abdel Mahdi al-Karbalai said in a sermon at Karbala.
While the potential UN mission would meet one of Sistani's key demands, it stirred the wrath of firebrand radical Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr, who branded the world body "dishonest" and subservient to America.
"I refuse the participation of the United Nations in supervising elections, because it is not honest and it follows America," Sadr told worshippers at the Kufa pilgrimage shrine near the central holy city of Najaf.
Sadr, who appeals mainly to the young and disenfranchised, also mobilised thousands of supporters earlier this week, fuelling expectations that Shiites will grab the helm in Iraq, with or without elections, leaving the Kurdish and Sunni Muslim minorities marginalised.
Earlier Friday, 2,000 people marched in Sistani's name in the town of Ad Dugail, north of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, the US-led coalition was facing an alarming shift in the nine-month insurgency that has blighted its presence in Iraq, with rebels now openly directing their fire at civilians and police.
Some 24 hours of guerrilla attacks ending Thursday left nine Iraqis dead.
Two US soldiers were also killed and another two injured.
Five Christian laundry women died after assailants raked their minibus with gunfire Wednesday as they were headed to work at a US base near Habbaniyah, west of Baghdad.
The fifth woman died Friday after succumbing to her injuries, said their employer, the German-based contractor, Ecolog, a subsidiary of US firm Kellog, Brown and Root.
Two Iraqi policemen killed Thursday in an ambush north of the powderkeg town of Fallujah, were buried Friday.
A civilian motorist caught in the attack was also killed and three policemen were wounded.
Another Iraqi man died and three others were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded 25 kilometres (16 miles) northwest of Iraq's oil capital of Kirkuk, police said Thursday.
US Brigadier General Mark Kimmit, the coalition's deputy operations director, Thursday reiterated warnings that civilian lives were being gambled in the high-stakes struggle to control Iraq.
The two latest US casualties occurred near Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, in a mortar attack on their base Wednesday night. A father and son were later arrested in connection to the shelling, a US military spokesman said Friday.
Two US soldiers were also confirmed injured in a bomb attack after a meeting of tribal leaders in Fallujah on Thursday.
US battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Brian Drinkwine based in Fallujah told Lebanese LBC television the blast was an attempt to assassinate him and his assistant.