U.N. ‘misspoke’ about Iraq-election help

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NEW YORK — The United Nations is backing away from its criticism of the U.S. troops’ “get-out-the-vote” effort in Iraq, criticism the Pentagon apparently agreed with.

Carina Perelli, who has been organizing U.N. assistance for Sunday’s election in Iraq, said on Wednesday that U.S. soldiers “have been extremely, I would say, over enthusiastic in trying to help out with this election.”

In response to a reporter’s question about American troops’ distribution of informational leaflets, she added, “We have been basically saying that they should try to minimize their participation because this is an Iraqi process.”

Miss Perelli indicated that she and fellow U.N. elections officer Carlos Valenzuela who has been in Iraq for months, have been “begging” U.S. officials to lower the military’s profile during the campaign period.

But yesterday, U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe said that Miss Perelli “misspoke,” and said “she did not intend to criticize the military’s profile.”

“We all know it is a sensitive time before the election. We don’t want anything we say to be misinterpreted, distract from the main focus and become a divisive issue,” Miss Okabe said. “Everyone agrees that we want the Iraqi elections to proceed.”

Informed Wednesday evening of Miss Perelli’s comments, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command, seemed mystified that troops would be involved in get-out-the-vote activities.

“Millions of Iraqis are going to go vote because they want to vote, and American soldiers do not have the mission to get the vote out,” Gen. Abizaid told reporters.

Images of U.S. troops handing out leaflets and general voter information have been broadcast on CNN and have appeared in U.S. newspapers in recent weeks. Reporters have accompanied troops as they handed out educational pamphlets.

Miss Okabe said yesterday that U.S. officials had not complained to the United Nations about the remarks, nor had there been pressure to rescind them.

Asked why the organization would publicly contradict one of its respected technical experts if there had not been a complaint, Miss Okabe said the statement, issued Wednesday evening, spoke for itself.

The United Nations has printed 21 million ballots for Sunday’s election.

Nearly 150,000 Iraqis have been trained as poll workers, and additional election monitors will be present representing a variety of political parties.

Kieran Prendergast, the U.N. chief political adviser, said that despite its efforts in Iraq, the United Nations would not be certifying the legitimacy of the elections.

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