- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — Shi’ite Muslims on the Iraqi Governing Council are ready to back off from their demands for elections before a planned U.S. transfer of sovereignty, but only in exchange for a majority role in a transitional government.

“There are two choices — elections, or compromises that respect the existing balances,” said Adel Abdel Mahdi, a senior official of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the top party among Shi’ites who form 60 percent of the population and hold a like share of the Governing Council seats.

“There can’t be any playing of the one issue against the other. If you refuse the elections, then you have to accept the balances.”

Meanwhile, Iraqi Shi’ite leaders outside the council warned top U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer against blocking Islamic law.

They reacted angrily to Mr. Bremer’s threat to use his veto if the U.S.-appointed interim council proposes a basic law that challenges the spirit of Western-style democracy.

“Islam is the source of law, and so it should be in a Muslim majority country,” said Abdel Mahdi al-Karabali, who represents Shi’ite spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani in the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala, 70 miles south of Baghdad.

“The Iraqi people only can veto the legislation and nobody has the right to interfere in our constitution,” he told Agence France-Presse yesterday.

Washington’s original plan for returning power to Iraqis at the end of June foresaw a complex system of caucuses to pick an interim body that would draft a constitution and see the country through to full elections next year.

But the plan was cast into disarray by Ayatollah al-Sistani. Followers staged large marches late last year in support of the ayatollah’s demands for elections to choose an interim body, leading Washington to ask a U.N. team to judge the feasibility of an early vote and explore alternatives.

Last week, the team met with Iraqi politicians, including Sunni Arabs who fear an early vote would hand power to the better-organized Shi’ites.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday he hoped to report this week on the findings of the group, which was led by Mr. Annan’s special adviser, Lakhdar Brahimi.

“I hope we will be able to help break the impasse and steer things in the right direction,” Mr. Annan told reporters in New York. He said he expects to complete the report before he travels to Japan on Friday.

U.N. officials already have said elections are not realistic before the June 30 handover date but that the U.S.-proposed system of selecting an assembly by caucuses also was not feasible. They also consider it unwise to postpone the June 30 transfer date.

Mr. Annan is expected to recommend some other option for the transfer of power, which could range from expanding the current Governing Council to forming a new body, such as delegates to a conference on devising fundamental laws.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that the Bush administration has “an open mind” on how best that should be accomplished, though it remains committed to handing over power by June 30.

“The debate goes around the issue of a caucus,” Mr. Powell said. “Is a caucus still the best way to do it, or can the caucus process be refined or moderated in some way, or is there some other procedure that might be used to reflect the will of the Iraqi people as we move forward?”

The caucus idea has lost support within the Governing Council since the U.N. visit, and some members — including Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani — have proposed that the council itself assume sovereignty for an interim period.

“In theory, there is the option of an improved version of the caucuses, though this would need so much thrashing out that it’s probably the least viable alternative,” said Samir al-Sumaidy, a Sunni council member.

“Assigning sovereignty to the council as it is is the easiest route at this point. This is the easiest to implement.”

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