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Iraq: Bremer Airs Doubts About Iraq Vote

By Frank T. Csongos and Andrew F. Tully

Washington, 19 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator in Baghdad, met with President George W. Bush on 16 January to discuss plans for transferring political power to Iraq and said afterwards doubts remain about holding direct elections before the end of June. But he held out for a compromise.

Bremer said the United States wants to continue to work within the framework of the 15 November agreement between the American-led coalition and Iraq's interim Governing Council. He said there are fundamental agreements between Washington and a key Iraqi cleric on transferring sovereignty to Iraq.

"If his demands are not met, al-Sistani will issue a fatwa declaring illegitimate any assembly elected under the U.S. plan."
The November accord calls for a transitional assembly selected in May to elect a provisional government that would assume sovereignty by 1 July.

Bremer said he will discuss the issue in New York today with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, says he wants direct elections by this summer. But Bremer said that may not be possible by then.

"We have doubts, as does the (UN) secretary-general, that elections can in fact be called in the time frame of the return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people on June 30."

After the White House meeting, Bremer told reporters that both al-Sistani and the U.S. administration agree there is a need for a transparent and democratic process in transferring power to the Iraqis.

The White House has left open the possibility of changes in the caucus plan, and Bremer restated that after his meeting with Bush. "These [elections or caucuses] are questions that obviously need to be looked at. We have said that we are prepared to see clarifications in the process that was laid out in the November 15 agreement, the ways in which the selection of the transitional assembly is carried forward, and I think that's one of the areas that we'll obviously be talking to the secretary-general and his colleagues about."

Bremer said there are "all kinds of ways" to set up either caucuses or elections, and that the Bush administration has ruled out no options. This appeared to signal Washington's willingness to compromise with al-Sistani.

Under the November agreement, a caucus -- a meeting of local Iraqi representatives -- will be held in each of the country's 18 states to choose representatives to the national legislature, which would be in session during the drafting of the country's new constitution.

This legislature is then expected to organize direct elections next year. Al-Sistani not only wants direct elections instead of caucuses, he wants the Iraqi people to vote on whether U.S. troops should be allowed to remain in their country after the transition. One of the ayatollah's aides said that if his demands are not met, al-Sistani will issue a fatwa, or religious edict, declaring that any assembly elected under the American plan is illegitimate.

Shi'ites make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, but many of the country's minority Sunni Muslims are also likely to be influenced by a fatwa from al-Sistani.

Several American news reports say Annan is leery about the U.S. plan for the caucuses. He is said to find the process to be a mere improvisation designed to allow Washington to hand off responsibility for the country in time for Bush to focus on his campaign for a second term as president in the 2 November election.

Annan also is reportedly reluctant to get immediately involved in the caucus preparations because he believes it is too soon for the United Nations to resume operations in Iraq. On 19 August, a car bomb destroyed UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing the secretary-general's personal representative there, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

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