Prague, 27 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan today said the UN will send a team to Iraq to determine whether early elections are feasible before a deadline of 30 June for restoring Iraqi sovereignty.
He said in a statement released in Paris that the mission will proceed as soon as adequate security measures are in place. He said the team will survey a broad spectrum of Iraqis on the election issue. Speaking later to reporters in Paris, Annan explained the mission: "As you know, there is a certain impasse [regarding direct elections] on the ground in Iraq today, and I have decided to send in a mission that will undertake [to resolve the impasse]."
He continued: "I hope [the UN mission will] also have the chance to talk to a large number of Iraqis, and I really hope that their presence and their efforts will help the Iraqis come to a consensus on how to take the transitional process forward."
The U.S. is hoping a UN determination on the issue will help end an impasse with some Iraqis -- mainly Shi'a Muslims -- who are calling for quick direct elections to coincide with the restoration of sovereignty.
Annan's statement was praised by the U.S.-led coalition authority in Iraq. Spokesman Charles Heatly said in Baghdad: "[We] welcome the UN secretary-general's statement of intent to send a mission to Iraq to evaluate the feasibility of elections before June 30."
The election issue is vexing U.S. plans for a rapid return of Iraqi sovereignty. The U.S. favors delaying elections to allow time to create better conditions for a fair vote -- including restoring security, taking a census, registering voters, and allowing candidates time to campaign.
In the meantime, a nonelected, transitional assembly would be chosen this spring in regional caucuses to represent a crosssection of Iraqi interests, ethnicities, and religious affiliations. That assembly, in turn, would select the members of a government to run the country until elections could be held in 2005.
The plan has been fiercely criticized by some within Iraq -- mainly Shi'a Muslims -- as undemocratic and illegitimate. The Shi'a are the largest single religious group in the country and presumably stand to benefit most from direct elections.
Opposition to the U.S. plan has been led by top Shi'a leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In recent days, however, al-Sistani has softened his stance, indicating he might compromise if the UN decides fair elections cannot be organized quickly. Last week, he urged followers to halt mass protests against the U.S. plan until the UN can decide on the issue.
The U.S., too, has signaled it would consider modifying its plans. U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli last week said the U.S. is maintaining an open mind about how to resolve the election dispute: "We continue to look at electoral mechanisms that adhere to the [30 June] timetable, and we have an open mind about how to most effectively facilitate an orderly transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people within that framework."
The zeal to hold direct elections is not generally shared by Iraq's two other main groups -- Sunni Muslims and Kurds. These groups fear losing authority to the majority Shi'a.
Mahmud Uthman, an independent Kurdish politician and a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, recently told RFE/RL that Iraq's Kurds generally believe that direct elections would lead to chaos: "We are, first, under occupation. Second, there is no security. Third, there is no census or [voter] register. Four million Iraqis are outside [the country]. They have been ousted; they are not back. [And there are many] other reasons."
Annan's concern with the safety of the UN mission follows last summer's bombing of the UN's headquarters in Baghdad. The blast killed the UN's top Iraqi envoy and 21 other people. The UN later withdrew most of its operations from Iraq.