Tuesday, February 3, 2004

The United Nations will send a team to Iraq to “help break the impasse” holding up a June 30 turnover of power there, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said after a meeting with President Bush yesterday.

“The U.N. does have a role to play,” Mr. Annan said after his Oval Office meeting with the president. “The Iraqi Governing Council … indicated that they would accept the conclusions of the U.N. team, so we do have a chance to help break the impasse which exists at the moment and move forward.”

But Mr. Annan said the president pledged to support whatever agreement the United Nations can achieve for elections of a transitional Iraqi government, which the United States wants to take full control on July 1.

“We are going to help them work out this problem, and hopefully, they will come to some consensus and agreement as to how to move forward,” Mr. Annan said.

The Iraqi Governing Council, made up of U.S.-appointed members, and the Coalition Provisional Authority agreed Nov. 15 on an expansive timetable for handover of power. The White House has expressed openness to refinements of the plan, but not a change to the June 30 date.

“We believe the United Nations can once again play a vital role in Iraq,” Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said. “The team that he is sending in was at the request of the Governing Council, to assess the feasibility of elections within the timetable that has been agreed to, to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi people.”

The Nov. 15 timetable, which foresees the selection of a new governing body through national caucuses, has been thrown into flux by Iraq’s most prominent Shi’ite leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who wants direct elections to choose a provisional assembly.

Mr. Annan, who has expressed support for the timetable, said all parties agree sovereignty should be handed over to Iraq as soon as possible.

“The date of 30 June has been suggested, but there is some disagreement as to the mechanism for establishing the provisional government,” he said. “I hope this team I’m sending in will be able to play a role, getting the Iraqis to understand that if they could come to some consensus and some agreement on how to establish that government, they’re halfway there.”

Mr. Annan said the U.N. group was authorized by the coalition authority and the Governing Council “to review whether elections are possible or not, help with the design of the caucus system or propose other options.”

The U.N. secretary-general said “obviously, we are concerned about security,” adding, “I cannot say that we today have a secure environment in Iraq for the U.N. to resume its normal activities, but I hope that day will come.”

In October, Mr. Annan ordered U.N. international staff to leave Iraq after two bombings at U.N. headquarters and a series of deadly attacks targeting humanitarian organizations.

In brief comments in the Oval Office, Mr. Bush expressed confidence that Iraq will soon be peaceful and democratic.

“I’m upbeat and optimistic about the future of the world,” he said. “We’ve discussed ways to make sure that by working together, the Iraqi people can be free and the country stable and prosperous and an example of democracy in the Middle East. And the United Nations does have a vital role there.”

Mr. Annan was also optimistic.

“We are going to go there to help the Iraqis, to help them establish a government that is Iraqi, a government that will work with them to assure their future, in terms of political and economic destiny,” he said.

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