Annan to weigh request to study Iraqi elections

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

UNITED NATIONS -- U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan promised U.S. and Iraqi leaders Monday he would weigh their request to send a U.N. team to study if Iraq could have quick, direct elections for a new legislature.

A decision by U.N. experts would help resolve a growing dispute between the United States and a top Shiite cleric over the best way to transfer power before a June 30 deadline.

Annan gave indications he was leaning toward approval but stressed that security of U.N. staff must be provided for -- something the U.S.-led coalition will have to guarantee. Members of the U.N. Security Council also backed the idea.

"If we get it wrong at this stage, it'll be even more difficult and we may not even get to the next stage," he said. "So I think it is extremely important that we do whatever we can to assist."

The United Nations is essentially being asked to help resolve an argument between the Bush administration and Iraq's most prominent Shiite leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who has demanded direct elections to choose a provisional government by June 30. The coalition wants to keep to a handover plan dating from Nov. 15, which calls for caucuses to choose a provisional assembly.

Agreeing to al-Sistani's request would essentially mean holding the direct elections by May, and Annan has said repeatedly it doesn't appear that would give enough time to prepare for a fair vote.

Annan said he recognized the election issue was urgent and that he hoped for a speedy decision.

Al-Sistani has indicated he would accept the U.N. team's decision, even if it affirms Annan's belief that direct elections are unfeasible.

Annan had initially called Monday's meeting with the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-led Coalition Authority to help clarify a possible new U.N. role in the future of Iraq.

The crucial issue for Annan is whether U.N. staff will be safe operating in Iraq. He ordered all international staff to leave Iraq in late October following two bombings at U.N. headquarters -- including one on Aug. 19 that killed top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others.

"Obviously, the scope for operational U.N. activities inside Iraq will continue to be constrained by the security situation for some time to come," Annan said.

The top U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, who attended Monday's meeting, has said elections cannot be organized in time to meet the June 30 deadline, given the ongoing violence and lack of voter rolls.

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