Bush insists Iraqi elections must take place in January

Friday, December 3, 2004

WASHINGTON -- President Bush rejected calls for a delay in next month's Iraqi elections, insisting Thursday that the vote was too important to put off even though violence and chaos still grip much of the country.

"It's time for the Iraqi citizens to go to the polls," Bush said.

Bush predicted Iraq's elections would leave the world "amazed that a society has been transformed so quickly," but he did not explain why he was so adamant that balloting go forward as scheduled Jan. 30.

A number of Iraqi political parties have urged delay.

The president also weighed in on Ukraine's election crisis, saying more forcefully than before that other countries must not meddle as Ukraine sorts through its disputed vote and contemplates a new one. A runoff election last month sparked massive protests that have paralyzed the government.

"I think any election, if there is one, ought to be free from any foreign influence," Bush said, raising the stakes in what has become a proxy battle between Washington and Moscow. Both governments see the outcome as vital to their influence in the region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a similar warning earlier this week. He said Ukraine's crisis must be solved without foreign pressure, though Putin continued Thursday to play a high-profile role. In Moscow, Putin hosted Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, an ally of the declared winner, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

Putin sharply criticized the Ukrainian opposition's proposal to hold a repeat election, telling Kuchma that a new vote "would yield nothing."

"We're watching very carefully what is taking place," Bush said. "But any election in any country must reflect the will of the people and not that of any foreign government."

Bush spoke in the Oval Office at the start of a meeting with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

As for the Iraqi election, Bush last week said he hoped the Jan. 30 balloting would not be postponed, even though 17 political parties in Iraq have urged the interim government to put it off for at least six months. Those groups want security at polling places to be ensured. On Thursday, a Sunni political party official said his organization would push forward with that demand.

But Bush was firmer than ever.

"The elections should not be postponed," he said. "It's time for the Iraqi citizens to go to the polls and that's why we are very firm on the Jan. 30 date."

Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, said elections are essential "to bringing about a stable and peaceful and democratic Iraq."

"This will be an important milestone as they move away from their past of tyranny and oppression and brutality," McClellan said.

On another subject, Bush steered gingerly around allegations of corruption in the United Nations' oil-for-food program in Iraq, allegations that first surfaced in January. Those charges have escalated: Two weeks ago, a congressional investigation uncovered evidence that Saddam Hussein's government raised more than $21.3 billion in illegal revenue by subverting U.N. sanctions against Iraq, including the oil-for-food program.

Bush did not answer two questions about whether U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan should resign, as Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., has urged. But he said a thorough investigation was necessary to ensure taxpayers can "feel comfortable" as the U.S. government pays U.N. dues. American dues to the United Nations this year are $362 million, not including payments to separate agencies such as the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear agency based in Austria.

"I look forward to the full disclosure of the facts, get honest appraisal of that which went on," Bush said.

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