Washington, 22 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations should return to Baghdad and help decide whether elections can be conducted at an early date. Iraqis, including influential Shi'a Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, are likely to go along.
That was the main message delivered in Washington yesterday by Adnan Pachachi, the current head of the Iraqi Governing Council. Pachachi gracefully tackled a host of pressing issues in an address to Washington reporters, one day after he was singled out in U.S. President George W. Bush's State of the Union speech.
"I think al-Sistani is looking for some reassurance that the process that the United States is promoting and the coalition is advancing is not rigged to help friends."
Speaking before both houses of Congress, Bush welcomed Pachachi, who was in the crowd of politicians attending the speech at the U.S. Capitol. "Month by month, Iraqis are assuming more responsibility for their own security and their own future. And tonight we are honored to welcome one of Iraq's most respected leaders -- the current president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi. Sir, America stands with you and the Iraqi people as you build a free and peaceful nation," Pachachi said.
In his talk with reporters, Pachachi said that, despite problems in Iraq, there's a feeling of elation in Iraq. He said the country is embarked on a "unique experience" in democracy after the toppling of former President Saddam Hussein. "We are confident that, in spite of all the difficulties we are encountering, we will be successful in creating a viable democracy in Iraq, which shall be a model for other countries in the area," Pachachi said.
But just how Iraq arrives at its new democracy is the most pressing issue in postwar Iraq.
Washington's plan to turn over sovereignty by 30 June after a series of complicated regional caucuses is being fiercely opposed by the majority Shi'a Muslim community, led by al-Sistani, who wants direct elections.
Under U.S. plans, the regional caucuses would select a Transitional Assembly by the end of May. This assembly would then pick an interim government to take power at the end of June. Full elections would follow in 2005. But in recent days, followers of al-Sistani have taken to streets across Iraq to press for elections. Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Baghdad on 19 January.
Washington, which once scorned giving the UN a key role in Iraq, is now asking the world body to step in and send a team of experts to the country to determine whether elections are feasible by 30 June.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has indicated he is leaning toward sending a team. In Germany yesterday, Annan said the UN must remain independent and neutral. The UN is expected to announce a decision on the team next week.
Pachachi, speaking at the National Press Club, said everyone in Iraq wants elections, but the question is whether they can be fairly held in three months.
The former Iraqi foreign minister and exile said that if UN experts deem elections feasible in that timeframe, then polls are likely to be held because the pressure to do so will be too great. But he added that if the UN rules against elections, then al-Sistani is also likely to accept their decision:
"If, on the other hand, the United Nations says proper, fair and credible elections cannot be held in the next three months, then I think Ayatollah al-Sistani will understand," Pachachi said.
That assessment was shared this week by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, an Iraqi Governing Council member and head of the Shi'a Dawa party.
"If there is a UN delegation that has a background in electoral and census matters, and has an open dialogue...one side may be convinced by what the other says," Jafari said. "Whatever the result, if it comes to an agreement, I believe Sayyid Sistani will accept that."
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, maintains that elections cannot be organized before the 30 June deadline. But he has also said that direct elections deserve serious consideration.
Mamoun Fandy is a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. Fandy tells RFE/RL that whatever decision the UN reaches, it will be seen as having legitimacy by all participants in Iraq's political reconstruction:
"Inclusion of the UN certainly will provide a political cover and a legitimacy cover for whatever outcome that al-Sistani and [Kurdish leader Jalal] Talabani, and the Kurds and the Sunni of central Iraq, would agree to," Fandy said.
Pachachi said that if conditions for elections do not exist in Iraq at the moment, he believes it is possible to find alternatives acceptable to al-Sistani and other Iraqis. He said the caucus process could be made more transparent and more inclusive of Iraqis. If that is done, Frederick Barton believes al-Sistani's concerns could be quelled. Barton is a former UN deputy high commissioner for refugees and an expert in postconflict reconstruction.
"I think al-Sistani is looking for some reassurance that the process that the United States is promoting and the coalition is advancing is not rigged to help friends -- that it's a process that is honest and open," Barton said.
Meanwhile, Pachachi is also urging the UN to set up a new general mission in his country. He said that, while not perfect, security will be better than when a bomb destroyed the UN's Baghdad office last summer, killing mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Pachachi said the UN should appoint a replacement for de Mello even if the world body still faces risks in the country. "This is part of the work of United Nations officials. They have to accept certain risks in their work, as we all of us who are in Iraq now. We live, of course, in a dangerous environment, but we try to protect ourselves because the work has to be done. It has to continue," Pachachi said.
He said most Iraqis want U.S. forces to remain to help ensure security for up to two years after America relinquishes power. But he added that U.S. officials have vowed to remain only at the request of Iraq's new government.