- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s most prominent Shi’ite cleric signaled yesterday that he would accept the installation of an unelected government after June 30 if elections are set — possibly for the end of the year — and the United Nations guarantees the date.

Although the timetable for the ballot is shorter than suggested by the United States, the statement by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani indicated that an agreement was taking shape to end the U.S. occupation on schedule.

Such an agreement probably would involve a weak Iraqi administration assuming sovereignty on June 30 with a primary mission to organize an election in concert with U.N. and U.S. experts.

It now is up to the United Nations, the U.S.-run coalition authority and the Iraqi leadership to decide how to constitute such a government, one acceptable not only to the country’s majority Shi’ites, but also to the Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians.

The United States has said it would prefer expanding the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council to include more Sunnis and other groups to enhance the body’s legitimacy among Iraq’s 25 million people.

Ayatollah al-Sistani initially had demanded elections to choose a transitional legislature, which in turn would appoint a government. The United Nations agreed with the Americans that elections were not feasible before June 30 because of the security situation, the absence of census data and other infrastructure.

In a statement issued yesterday by his office in Najaf, Ayatollah al-Sistani noted that the United Nations had ruled out an early ballot, but said the world organization’s opinion that elections might be possible by the end of the year “is of great significance.”

“The period in which an unelected government should take control of this country must be short and for few months only,” the ayatollah said. He insisted on “clear guarantees, such as a Security Council resolution” regarding the date for elections, “so that Iraqis will be sure that there is no more postponement and prolonging.”

Ayatollah al-Sistani said “the unelected body” that will take power after June 30 “should be an interim administration of limited and clear mandate.”

U.S. officials have expressed doubt that elections can be held this year, given the slow pace of decision-making by the Governing Council.

Last week, L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, said the United Nations thought that organizing elections could take “somewhere between a year and 15 months,” although he added that perhaps the process could be speeded up.

However, a senior coalition official, when asked about Ayatollah al-Sistani’s statement, said simply that the ayatollah was responding to a U.N. report and “we are really turning to the U.N.”

The remark appears to indicate that the U.S.-led coalition wants the United Nations to assume a greater role in the transition to Iraqi rule.

Also yesterday, the commander of coalition forces, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, told reporters that security conditions in Iraq were “considerably better than what they were 60 days ago” and that the situation was “manageable for whatever government process that needs to take place.”

In the latest violence, a bomb exploded yesterday near a police car in Baqouba, killing one policeman, injuring four and damaging four police vehicles.

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