Prague, 25 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Officials in Iraq are expressing cautiously positive reactions to the UN's conclusion that free and fair elections are not possible before 30 June due to security and technical problems.
The UN report was based on the findings of a team that recently visited the country and met with a wide range of Iraqis. In the report, released 23 February, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says direct elections could be held by the end of this year or the beginning of 2005 if key security and technical conditions are met.
Annan discussed the findings yesterday while speaking before the Japanese parliament (the Diet) in Tokyo: "The [UN election] team found a consensus among Iraqis that elections are a necessary step in the process of building democratic governance and reconstruction, but also that the 30th June deadline for the transfer of sovereignty to a provisional government should be maintained. Unfortunately, credible elections cannot take place by 30th June 2004."
"In one or two days we will give them an answer and ask [the UN] to come and help us in the two processes -- giving sovereignty and also the elections in general."
The timetable proposed by the UN is a compromise between the original U.S. plan and Shi'a demands for direct elections. The U.S. had originally envisioned direct elections for a new Iraqi government by the end of December 2005. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shi'a religious leader, had pushed for direct elections to be held before the 30 June transfer of power.
Mahmud Uthman, an independent member of the Iraqi Governing Council, tells RFE/RL that reaction to the UN report on the governing council and among many political parties has been largely favorable.
"The reaction in the [Governing] council and in the parties also is generally positive," he said. "Of course, we are going to discuss the report in detail because it has 41 pages, and in one or two days we will give them an answer and ask [the UN] to come and help us in the two processes -- the process of giving sovereignty and also the elections in general."
Uthman says UN participation in the elections will be important to give international legitimacy to the process. Uthman says he personally supports the UN plan because "if the proper preparations are not made, the results will not be good."
Meanwhile, some Shi'a politicians seem wary of the plan.
Hamid al-Bayati is a spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the best organized Shi'a political party in Iraq. He told "The Washington Times" newspaper yesterday that efforts to delay the election are due to fears of the Shi'a majority in Iraq.
"It could be the Americans, it could be the Sunnis," he said, "but they should accept the new facts of a new Iraq."
Uthman says SCIRI's first reaction to the UN report was too hasty, however, and that SCIRI is changing its attitude.
"Generally speaking, also yesterday, the politburo of SCIRI declared that the report is positive," he said. "So, I think, generally speaking, they are a bit disappointed. They thought general elections could be held earlier. That is their point."
Uthman points out that Shi'a politicians, as well as many ordinary Iraqis, would prefer elections be held in Iraq before the general elections in the United States. "Many politicians are afraid that Iraq might be neglected after the November elections in the U.S.," says Uthman.
As for al-Sistani himself, Uthman says there is still no reaction to the UN recommendations from the pre-eminent Shi'a religious leader.
Hamid al-Khaffah, director of al-Sistani's affairs bureau in Lebanon, told RFE/RL that the Shi'a religious authority -- the marjia'a -- is open to discussing the proposals and that so far there are no serious objections to the UN plan.
However, he says two points in the report remain unclear: "The first thing we don't agree with is that the report doesn't specify to whom the power should be transferred on June 30th. It only gives some proposals and leaves the issue to be decided by the Iraqis themselves in cooperation with the occupation authorities."
He continues, "The second is that the report didn't mention the necessity of a UN Security Council resolution to legalize the process of the power transfer and the timetable. This is very important and there is no way for the marjia'a to ignore it."
The "Chicago Tribune" newspaper, however, quotes Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Modaresi, a senior cleric close to al-Sistani, as saying that delaying the elections is "a time bomb that could explode at any minute."
"Without elections," al-Modaresi said, "our national institutions will remain shaken, unrecognized and distrusted by the people."
(Muhammad Ali Khadhim of RFE/RL's Iraqi Service contributed to this report.)