U.N., Iraqis debate early elections

Monday, February 9, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- With the American plan for handing power to the Iraqis at stake, U.N. experts met with Iraqi leaders for the first time Sunday to discuss the chances of holding early elections as demanded by the Shiite clergy.

Elsewhere in Iraq, Prince Charles made a surprise visit, and Japan expanded its first military deployment to a combat zone since World War II.

In fresh violence, insurgents attacked separate U.S. Army convoys with explosives, killing one soldier and wounding three others, witnesses said. The soldier was killed when a roadside bomb exploded near Mahmudiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad, a military spokesman said.

At a former palace in Basra, Prince Charles mingled with about 200 British soldiers, shaking hands and praising them for their role in keeping security in southern Iraq. Charles left later Sunday for Iran, becoming the first British royal to visit that country in 33 years.

The U.N. team sat down with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to start determining whether legislative elections can be held by June 30.

The current U.S. plan is to choose legislators in regional caucuses -- a move opposed by the country's most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. If early elections are deemed unfeasible, the U.N. team will offer alternatives to the American plan.

Failure to find a formula for establishing a new Iraqi government acceptable to al-Sistani and Iraq's other religious and ethnic communities could sabotage White House plans for scaling back the U.S. role here at a time when criticism of President Bush's Iraq policy has become an issue in the U.S. election campaign.

After keeping the United Nations at arms-length in Iraq, the Bush administration asked for the world body's help last month to resolve the dispute with al-Sistani and find a way to constitute a new Iraqi government by July 1.

U.N. and Iraqi officials said little about the substance of the first day's talks. Brahimi, a special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said after the meeting that the United Nations would "do everything possible" to help the Iraqi people "regain independence and sovereignty."

However, Iraqi sources said on condition of anonymity that the initial session was taken up mostly by Governing Council members expressing their views on elections.

Sunni Arabs on the council echoed the U.S. view that early elections were not practical because of the need for extensive preparations to ensure a fair and credible ballot. Most of the Shiite members favored an early vote, arguing that sufficient data was available.

"The Sunni Arabs fear that an early election will be dominated by the Shiites," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish council member opposing an early vote.

Late Sunday, Brahimi met Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of a key Shiite political party, who handed the U.N. envoy a report by Iraqi experts on organizing an early election. Al-Hakim said Brahimi promised to study the report.

During the team's anticipated 10-day mission, Brahimi is expected to travel to the Shiite holy city of Najaf to meet al-Sistani.

Sunni fears arise in part from the minority community's disarray since the overthrow of fellow Sunni Saddam Hussein, whose downfall ended decades of privilege at the expense of the country's Shiite majority and sizable Kurdish community.

Shiites look to their clergy for guidance on worldly and spiritual matters, allowing clerics such as al-Sistani to galvanize the community. The Sunnis lack such a unifying institution since Saddam's Baath party disbanded.

Iyad al-Samaraai, a Sunni aide to council president Mohsen Abdel-Hamid, questioned the widely held belief that Shiites constitute a majority in Iraq, saying that was simply based on "guesswork."

Al-Samaraai also complained that Sunni Arabs had been marginalized by the Americans in favor of Shiites and Kurds.

"Many Shiite forces enjoyed good and strong relations with the United States before the overthrow of Saddam," al-Samaraai said. "That gave them an advantageous position now."

Such views are often repeated by Sunni Arabs but have rarely been aired publicly by someone of the stature of al-Samaraai.

In southeastern Iraq, an armored convoy of Japanese soldiers arrived Sunday as part of Tokyo's first military deployment in a hostile region since 1945.

The ground troops, mostly engineers, lead a deployment that will eventually reach about 800 soldiers in a humanitarian mission to improve water supplies and other infrastructure projects around Samawah. Another 200 soldiers will remain in Kuwait.o

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