- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

NEW YORK — U.S. and Iraqi officials yesterday urged U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to send a team to Iraq to determine whether direct elections would be feasible this summer.

Mr. Annan told reporters he would decide after further discussions, but diplomats said they expected him to send such a delegation.

If a U.N. technical team finds that holding direct elections is not feasible by the July 1 deadline for the U.S.-led coalition to hand power to Iraqis, the United States would have an easier time selling its plan for caucus-style elections to the country’s increasingly restless Shi’ite majority.

As many as 100,000 demonstrators jammed the streets of Baghdad yesterday to demand direct elections, a process that would naturally favor Iraq’s 60 percent Shi’ite majority.

The demonstrators were mobilized by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric.

Ayatollah al-Sistani has rejected the proposed June 30 caucus process as insufficiently democratic.

He has written to the United Nations, suggesting that U.N. monitors would give direct elections more credibility.

Abdul Aziz al Hakim, a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council who is close to Ayatollah al-Sistani, told reporters yesterday that the ayatollah would accept a U.N. recommendation, even if it advises against direct elections.

“This conclusion would be respected by Mr. Sistani,” Mr. Hakim said.

But he added: “We are demanding a government transitional assembly that is elected by the people, to have a wide base, a true base with the people. This is the most important.”

U.S. and Iraqi officials indicated yesterday there might be room for improvisation in an agreement drafted by the Governing Council and accepted by Washington. The pact calls for caucus-style elections in each of Iraq’s provinces.

However, officials said, a transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis will take place no later than June 30.

“It’s an evolving situation,” said Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister under Saddam Hussein who was forced into exile.

Mr. Pachachi is the current president of the Governing Council, a post that rotates each month.

“We have to find the best ways and means,” he said, citing security concerns that were outlined in an earlier meeting by Mr. Annan.

“We also explained to [Mr. Annan] the necessity of making absolutely clear to Iraqi public opinion whether elections are feasible and can be held, because this is an issue that has to be resolved soon, before the end of February,” he said.

February is the deadline for the Governing Council to craft the Fundamental Law, which will guide the country until a permanent government and new constitution can be put into place.

U.N. officials, acutely aware that the United Nations was largely shut out of the war and reconstruction afterward, are wary of finding themselves defending the status quo amid opposition from the Iraqi people.

“I would want the U.N. to concentrate on areas where we have a clear, comparative advantage and which all Iraqis consider vital,” Mr. Annan told reporters yesterday.

“Further details and discussions are needed to clarify exactly how the U.N. can best help the various fields where we have been asked to assist,” he said.

The top American civilian in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, said yesterday that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority is “open to clarifications or elaborations on the technique by which the [transitional government] will be selected as provided in the November 15th agreement.”

He declined to say what sort of adjustments could be made in the process, deferring to the U.N. technical team.

The Iraqi delegation at the United Nations yesterday included four Governing Council members and three deputies, representing a variety of ethnic and religious groups, as well as Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister.

Under the November agreement, the Coalition Provisional Authority will yield power to a transitional Iraqi authority July 1.

That transitional group will be selected by a complex system of caucuses to be staged in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

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