- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

NEW YORK — A United Nations technical team will face three very different and often conflicting agendas in Iraq if Secretary-General Kofi Annan approves a mission to explore various election scenarios designed to transfer power to a sovereign Iraqi government, diplomats say.

The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the current authority in the country, wants to begin returning sovereign powers to the Iraqis this summer, with an indirect June 30 election to prepare the way for a fully representative government.

Iraq’s Shia Muslims, taking their cue from revered Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, do not want abstract caucuses, preferring direct voting that will clearly benefit the country’s religious majority.

And the country’s ethnic Kurds, who have carved out a secure and prosperous homeland in northern Iraq, oppose any electoral system that will infringe on their decade of de facto independence.

In Najaf, Iraq, yesterday, an aide to Ayatollah al-Sistani said the cleric wants Iraqi experts — and not just those from the United Nations — to decide whether early elections are not feasible before he will drop his opposition to the U.S. political blueprint for Iraq.

The ayatollah also is adamant that the U.S.-led occupation meet a July 1 deadline to hand over sovereignty, according to the aide, Mohammed al-Yehia al-Mawsawi.

If the basis for new Iraqi institutions is not sound, “then what comes after will also be unsound and the people of Iraq will pay dearly for that,” Mr. al-Mawsawi warned.

But the American-dominated CPA, eager to hand power to a transitional Iraqi authority, is not likely to brook delay.

Diplomats say the U.N. team has some wiggle room, especially as the various groups have publicly indicated a willingness to be flexible as long as their basic demands are met.

Mr. Annan “doesn’t want to come back with empty hands,” said one Security Council ambassador.

CPA officials concede that the complex caucus-style elections proposed for Iraq’s 18 administrative areas are not ideal, but argue plan is the best they can do in six months.

“It’s the least-bad way to do this in the time we have and the situation we have,” one U.S. official said yesterday.

Under the CPA timeline, endorsed by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), the caucuses will choose delegates by June 30, and those delegates will then select the Iraqis to compose a transitional authority. That body will have power until direct elections are held, by March 2005.

Mr. al-Mawsawi also suggested turning power over to the IGC, but coalition spokesman Charles Heatly said yesterday in Baghdad that that option is not under consideration.

A U.S. official familiar with the situation defended the caucus approach, saying that it puts enough power in the hands of local authorities that all the major groups will be well represented in the final outcome.

“You can cut enough deals so that the Shias will be represented in the caucuses in the south, and the Kurds in the north,” said the American. “If you don’t like [the word] caucus, call it something else.”

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