- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

DAVOS, Switzerland — British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw urged the United Nations to return to Iraq to help resolve a dispute over elections as global power brokers opened an annual meeting in this snowy Alpine resort yesterday.

Mr. Straw defended the U.S.-led coalition’s decision to go to war and lobbied for international support in rebuilding Iraq at the five-day World Economic Forum.

“I am in no doubt that if we had sat on our hands and not acted, the world would be today a much more dangerous place,” he told a packed early session.

Mr. Straw expressed hope that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan — due in Davos today — will support an American and Iraqi request to deploy specialists who would assess whether Iraq could hold elections by May for a transitional government.

In Baghdad, Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric also signaled flexibility on holding early elections, suggesting he will follow any U.N. recommendation on whether a direct vote is feasible, an Iraqi official said early today.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani’s insistence that Iraqi voters choose a transitional legislature has jeopardized a U.S. plan to transfer power to Iraqis and end the U.S. occupation of Iraq by July 1.

A Shiite official who spoke to al-Sistani said early today that if a proposed team of U.N. experts tells the cleric it isn’t possible to organize direct elections by July 1, he would accept the verdict.

U.S. officials want to adhere to a plan to use caucuses to choose the interim legislature.

Mr. Straw said that “if there were to be a re-engagement of the U.N. and early appointment of highly qualified special representative, that could only assist in this process.”

U.N. staff pulled out of Iraq in October after two bombings at U.N. headquarters, and Mr. Annan said Monday that security for a new team was a key concern.

In Germany yesterday, Mr. Annan said that if a U.N. team is sent to Iraq to study the feasibility of quick elections, he would insist on its “independence and neutrality” and that “both sides accept our judgment.”

Mr. Straw said the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council believed early elections were not feasible, and he testily rejected suggestions that the caucus plan lacked “legitimacy.”

“It’s a very easy word to mouth,” he said, while challenging critics “to say what they would do next which is different but which could practically be put on the ground without causing greater problems than we have today.”

Meanwhile, Iraq’s neighbors Saudi Arabia and Kuwait signaled they would forgive some of the billions of dollars owed to them by Baghdad but insisted they would reach a deal only with a sovereign Iraqi government. The two countries made the offer during talks with President Bush’s envoy, James A. Baker III, who is pressing Arab nations to reduce Iraq’s debt.

Neither country said how much debt they would forgive.

Iraq owed $9 billion to the Saudi government and about $15 billion to Kuwait, a debt accumulated before Saddam Hussein invaded the small, oil-rich Persian Gulf emirate in August 1990.

The Gulf nation of Qatar said Tuesday it would forgive most of the $4 billion Iraq owes it and will consider forgiving all the debts “at an appropriate time.”

The United Arab Emirates also told Mr. Baker on Tuesday it was willing to forgive most of Iraq’s $3.8 billion debt. Several European and Asian countries have made similar concessions.


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