Thursday, February 19, 2004

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday insisted on the need to stick to the June 30 deadline set by the United States for transferring power to the Iraqi people but said national elections were not feasible before that date.

He did not say how a caretaker government could be chosen to fill the gap between the transfer of sovereignty and a future ballot, though an announcement on the subject is expected Monday.

There is an emerging consensus “that elections cannot be held before the end of June [but] that the June 30 date for hand-over of sovereignty must be respected,” Mr. Annan told reporters.

He spoke after a meeting with ambassadors from the 46-nation Group of Friends of Iraq, which also heard from Lakhdar Brahimi, Mr. Annan’s special envoy who recently spent a week in Iraq talking to religious and political leaders.

“My personal feeling is that … no one has the miracle solution,” said an official from one of the 46 nations, who asked not to be identified.

“One thing is certain: The political process will have to be owned by the Iraqis, and, if possible, by all the Iraqis — and this is the main objective,” said the official.

A U.S. official in New York said he was pleased with Mr. Annan’s statements and that he expected the secretary-general to lay out options for the interim period next week.

“We want to make sure that the temporary government that is established before national elections … looks and acts like a democracy,” he said.

Mr. Annan said he had told Friends of Iraq, “We need to find a mechanism to create a caretaker government and then help prepare the elections later — sometime later in the future.”

He is expected to present his final recommendations to the Security Council, the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority on Monday. The Iraqis then will be asked to respond to the suggestions.

Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who met for more than two hours last week with Mr. Brahimi, had rejected the U.S.-proposed caucus system in favor of direct elections. Ayatollah al-Sistani wields strong influence with Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims, who make up 60 percent of the population.

In an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel, Ayatollah al-Sistani said if the necessary steps for free elections could not be completed by the end of June, two things had to happen:

“First, the preparations must be brought to an end within a short time and with a U.N. resolution [that] must contain clear guarantees that there will be no further delays to the election,” he said.

Second, “the responsibilities to be transferred initially to a nonelected transitional government must be narrowly defined,” he said. “Any important political decision that determines the future of our country [is] the preserve of a government that is freely elected.”

In Baghdad, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer said an interim constitution being drawn up by the Iraqi Governing Council would guarantee the fundamental rights of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religious belief and practice in any interim government.

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