- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

The United Nations’ senior adviser on Iraq warned yesterday that premature elections could do more harm than good by enflaming ethnic and political divisions in a nation reeling from attacks on civilians who cooperate with the U.S.-led coalition.

The warning by Lakhdar Brahimi, who just concluded a two-year assignment as the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, came as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced in Paris that he would send an electoral team to Iraq to “search for alternatives” to the selection of caucuses this spring.

“If you get your priorities wrong, elections are a very divisive process,” Mr. Brahimi said at a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington.

“They create tensions. They create competition. And in a country that is not quite stable enough to take that one has to be certain it will not do more harm than good.”

Mr. Annan’s announcement, which had been anticipated, was received with relief in Washington and Baghdad, where the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council is divided on whether to stay with their own plan to select caucuses or yield to demands from a prominent Shi’ite cleric for full and immediate democracy.

“I have concluded that the United Nations can play a constructive role in helping to break the current impasse,” Mr. Annan said yesterday.

“Once I am satisfied that the will provide adequate security arrangements, I will send a mission to Iraq in response to the requests that I received.”

The United Nations pulled out of Iraq in October following attacks on its facilities in Baghdad, including an Aug. 19 bombing of its headquarters that killed 22 persons.

“We are talking about putting staff members at risk,” U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe told reporters in New York.

She said that U.N. security experts had arrived in Baghdad yesterday to determine whether it is safe enough for a U.N. team of electoral officials to operate.

Diplomats and Iraqi officials said they expect a team of electoral officials will arrive in Baghdad by late next week, following the Muslim holiday Eid-al-Adha.

“This is very good news, that he will send the team,” said Hamid al-Bayati, a political adviser to Abdel Aziz Hakim, the most prominent Shi’ite member of the Iraqi Governing Council.

“We welcome their help to find ways to hold a direct election.”

Mr. Hakim said that it was his impression that the electoral experts would travel to the north to visit Kurdish areas, and to Najaf, in central Iraq, to meet with representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the reclusive cleric who has mobilized thousands of Shi’ites to demand direct elections.

Ayatollah al-Sistani’s associates have said he would accept the U.N. recommendation on whether direct elections could be held before July 1.

Basic issues that would need to be resolved before any election would include drafting rules for polling. Also a system would have to be set up to register voters and guarantee their security.

Mr. Brahimi said yesterday that the divisiveness that comes with campaigns and votes can actually increase political tensions and violence, especially in a fragile society like Iraq.

“A country has to be stable enough to take those heated debates,” said Mr. Brahimi, who has just finished overseeing U.N. efforts in Afghanistan.

The Iraqi Governing Council, meanwhile, has formed its own electoral advisory committee, whose members expect to work closely with both the coalition officials and the U.N. electoral advisers.

The coalition and the Governing Council have set out a detailed timeline to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi people. This calls for Iraq’s 18 provinces to select caucuses to choose a provisional assembly, which would then choose members of a legislative council that would function until full elections in March 2005.

But many Iraqis, including many on the Governing Council, now reject the caucus plan as too remote from the will of the people.

They also say it concentrates too much power in the hands of coalition officials and those Iraqis who have been selected by them.

Mr. al-Bayati said yesterday that the Governing Council needs data from the electoral team before it can finish drafting the Fundamental Law, similar to a constitution, which will replace Iraq’s existing laws until a permanent government can write its own.

“The most important part of the Fundamental Law is the way to select the members of the legislative council,” Mr. al-Bayati said by telephone yesterday from his Baghdad home.

“Until we reach an agreement it will be difficult. There is a special committee in the governing council to draft the law. But right now, they are waiting for the U.N. team to help with a mechanism for their selection.”

He said that even if the Fundamental Law and the separate Iraqi bill of rights are not drafted by a Feb. 28 deadline, the transition of authority to the Iraqis will not be delayed beyond June 30.

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