- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2004

NEW YORK — U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan confirmed yesterday that he will soon dispatch a team of electoral experts to Iraq to study the feasibility of holding direct elections in less than five months.

The team could arrive in Baghdad as soon as next week, and will likely spend several weeks touring the vast and fragmented country, talking to key political, religious and civic leaders.

The team’s findings will be reported directly to Mr. Annan, U.N. officials stressed, and they will be relayed from there to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Iraqi Governing Council.

Mr. Annan indicated earlier this week that he would send the team if the civilian authority could guarantee its safety.

“The coalition has promised to do [the] maximum to protect the team … so I think in the coming days, the team will travel and start working,” he told reporters in Brussels yesterday.

Security continues to be a concern in Baghdad where two rocket-propelled grenades were fired on the Dutch Embassy yesterday. No one was hurt in the attack since the office had closed for the day, Dutch officials said.

The United Nations last weekend dispatched security experts to Iraq to determine whether the team — a potential lightning rod for attacks by Ba’athist loyalists — would be able to travel safely.

“We look forward to a U.N. team coming in to assess and make a recommendation on whether direct elections can be held, and if not, make some recommendations,” coalition spokesman Dan Senor told reporters in Baghdad earlier this week.

Members of the CPA and the Iraqi Governing Council met with Mr. Annan and senior U.N. staff in New York Jan. 19 to request an evaluation of the prospects for a direct election that would meet international standards.

The two groups in November put together a timeline to transform Iraq from occupation to sovereign nation by spring 2005. Under this agreement, local caucuses would select an assembly that would appoint the members of a transitional government by July 1.

But leaders of Iraq’s majority Shi’ite Muslim community have rejected this plan, saying that it concentrates too much power in the hands of the CPA and will not reflect local desires. Urged on by Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al-Sistani, a reclusive Shi’ite cleric, they have taken to the streets to demand direct elections.

U.N. political experts share the view of the United States that Iraq is not yet ready for undiluted democracy. They note that Iraq has no election law, no voter rolls and no recent history to draw on. Rushed elections, they fear, will favor the better-organized but more extreme parties.

Senior U.N. adviser Lakhdar Brahimi, who has just concluded a two-year tenure as the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, this week warned that premature elections could fuel civil unrest and factional fighting.

The electoral team would mark the first U.N. effort in Iraq since its foreign staff was withdrawn in October, just weeks after a powerful truck bomb ripped through its Baghdad headquarters, killing 22, including the top U.N. official in Baghdad, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

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