- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

Iraq could hold its first free national elections in decades by the end of the year if work begins right away on a legal blueprint for holding the ballot, U.N. officials told Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a report released yesterday.

The timing and structure of the elections are seen as critical to the long-term legitimacy of the new Iraqi authority and to Bush administration hopes for a smooth transfer of power to a viable, democratic Iraq.

Mr. Annan said that with such a blueprint and proper security in place, elections could take place six months after the United States hands power back to the Iraqi people on June 30.

A fact-finding U.N. team sent by Mr. Annan to Iraq earlier this month was told that political agreement on the legal framework may be secured by May.

“In that case and provided that other conditions are met, elections could be held by the end of 2004 or shortly thereafter,” the report said.

However, after more than 30 years of dictatorship, a ruined economy, a devastated infrastructure and the collapse of state institutions, conditions in the country “are daunting,” the report cautioned.

It warned that the challenges of working out a legitimate political process that would lead to a democratically elected government “are enormous.”

The report and Mr. Annan’s recommendations were the result of a one-week visit to Iraq by a seven-member fact-finding mission led by U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

The Bush administration, which has been wary of the world body’s involvement in Iraq in the past, welcomed the U.N. commitment to be actively engaged in Iraq and was studying the findings of the report, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

With general agreement in Iraq that elections would not be feasible before the June 30 transfer of sovereignty, and with the rejection of a U.S. suggestion for regional caucuses to create an interim body, the United Nations said a provisional government would have to be formed through some other mechanism to fill the political gap.

Adnan Pachachi, a senior member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which is scrambling to agree on an interim constitution to guide the transitional government, said that U.N. help would be needed.

“I believe Iraqis must ask the United Nations to help through consultations on the means of establishing an interim Iraqi government by June 30 that is capable of taking over authority and sovereignty at that time,” he said during a political debate in Baghdad.

The U.N. report was silent on the critical question of which Iraqi body would be in charge in the transition period before the elections are organized. The U.S. government had been hoping that the report would endorse plans for giving power to an expanded version of the Governing Council.

“We were not asked to give an opinion on the framework of the body that sovereignty would be transferred to,” said Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for Mr. Brahimi. “That’s another issue. If they want us to help with that, the report says we would be willing to do so.”

The Associated Press reported that U.N. officials privately say that Mr. Brahimi probably will return to Iraq next month for more talks with U.S. and Iraqi officials.

The United Nations said it was willing to step in, but only if the people of Iraq asked for its assistance and if the Security Council mandated such a role.

To move the political process forward in an organized way, the U.N. report called for the quick establishment of an autonomous and independent Iraqi Electoral Commission and said security around the country was of “paramount importance.”

L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Baghdad, told the Dubai-based Al Arabiya television station during the weekend that the United Nations estimates it could take up to 15 months to hold elections.

Mr. Bremer cited the absence of election laws, voter lists and reliable census data as obstacles to a quick election. “These technical problems will take time to fix,” he said.

However, the U.N. specialists warned that delays to a national vote could be costly.

Although there were the “first stirrings of party political activity” in Iraq, there also were many indications of “a growing fragmentation of the political class.”

“Sectarianism is becoming entrenched and inter-communal politics more polarized,” the report said.

In addition, the lack of security, unemployment, rising disillusionment among the people and the jockeying for position by political parties backed by armed militias could jeopardize the electoral process.

“Unless all actors — Iraqis and non-Iraqis — urgently address the most pressing issues, including the security situation, the underlying tensions could fuel the existing potential for civil strife and violence,” the report said.

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