NEW YORK — U.N. officials said yesterday that direct elections could not be organized in Iraq before the July deadline, placing the international body on the side of the United States in a looming confrontation with Iraq’s Shi’ite community led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.
An estimated 20,000 Shi’ites marched through Basra yesterday, chanting “No, no to America” and demanding direct elections instead of the caucus system for choosing a transitional government determined by the Iraqi Governing Council and approved by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.
That agreement made no mention of a U.N. role in the transitional process, although several Security Council resolutions have requested U.N. participation where possible.
Ayatollah al-Sistani, a highly influential cleric, has demanded direct elections before sovereignty is turned over to Iraqis at the end of June, which would likely favor Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. He has also suggested that U.N. oversight could encourage transparency and accountability.
He is not alone.
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish Governing Council member, told Reuters in Iraq yesterday that if the handover of power is carried out solely under the Americans, “it will be deficient because it will have been carried out under occupation.”
“But if it is implemented under the supervision of the United Nations, the Europeans and the Arab League, then it will be much more acceptable,” he said.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan feels “the time that would be needed to properly organize those elections, and the prevailing security conditions in the country” make nationwide elections “impractical,” his spokesman Fred Eckhard said in New York yesterday.
Other U.N. officials have said that direct elections would not be feasible yet because Iraq has neither political parties, nor an election law nor the kind of stable climate in which campaigning would be possible.
U.S. officials expressed similar concerns this week, arguing that the caucus-style process, while imperfect, is the best possible under the existing constraints.
Washington confirmed yesterday that L. Paul Bremer, the chief civilian administrator in Iraq, will travel to the United States this weekend for consultation with Bush administration officials before attending a meeting with U.N. officials on Monday.
On Monday, Mr. Bremer, Mr. Annan and senior members of the Iraqi Governing Council will try to determine whether it is possible for the world organization to return to Iraq to take up political, humanitarian and other responsibilities while the CPA is still in control.
The Iraqis will be represented by this month’s president of the Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi; Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari; Ahmad Chalabi, an exile during the Saddam regime; Abdel Aziz Hakim, the senior Shi’ite political figure; and Iyad Allawi.
The Governing Council, selected by Mr. Bremer to represent Iraq’s mosaic of ethnic and religious groups, has not spoken with a unified voice on difficult issues.
U.N. officials, as well as U.S. and other diplomats, have tried to play down the importance of the Monday meeting, saying the three parties will merely “seek clarity” on a U.N. role.
Several diplomats have said they don’t see much of a role for the United Nations before the midsummer handover of power, and have suggested that the time should be spent planning for political, humanitarian and human rights activities after that.
Mr. Annan has said repeatedly that the organization will not return until the coalition and the Iraqis outline a clear and independent role of the United Nations and provide security guarantees for staff members and facilities.
A senior U.S. official told reporters yesterday there had been discussions on security matters but that he saw no need for further clarification of the U.N. role.
U.N. foreign staffers were withdrawn after the devastating bombing of its Baghdad headquarters in August and other attacks on foreign aid workers.
Many governments, particularly the United States and Britain, would like to see the United Nations return to Iraq to help with humanitarian issues and to lend political legitimacy to the occupation.
Meanwhile, Iraqi dinars bearing Saddam Hussein’s picture ceased to be legal tender yesterday, completing a gradual transition to new paper currency.
The change has gone remarkably smoothly, according to observers, marred by little violence and only mild inflation. More than 100 tons of the old notes have been destroyed by the central bank over the last three months, according to a statement.
The Iraqi dinar was trading yesterday at about 1,000 to the U.S. dollar, down from a prewar high of nearly 3,500.
Also yesterday, an antitank mine planted along a road in Tikrit destroyed a bus, killing two university students and the driver, the Associated Press reported.