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Iraq: UN Team Meets Governing Council On Election Dispute

Prague, 9 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council met a delegation from the United Nations yesterday. The delegation is seeking to determine whether elections can be held before 30 June, the day Washington intends to hand power back to Iraqis.

Leaders of Iraq's majority Shi'a community have demanded direct elections before the handover. But Washington says there is not sufficient time or security to organize the polls before the end of June. Washington wants regional caucuses to choose a provisional government that would rule until full elections in 2005.

The UN team arrived in Baghdad on 7 February and has been meeting with different Iraqi groups in an attempt to resolve the disagreements.

The delegation was led by the UN's special envoy for Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi, who said after the talks that the United Nations will do everything it can to ease Iraq toward self-rule while the UN assessments are being made. "Before taking any decisions or making any announcements on holding elections I think that the United Nations affirms its sincere desire to do its best to get the Iraqi people and all its sectors and components out of the current crisis and to regain, as Kofi Annan said, independence and sovereignty -- and to rebuild Iraq in the way the Iraqi people wish," Brahimi said.

Brahimi's spokesman, Ahmed Fawzi, told reporters after yesterday's meeting that the UN delegation will acquaint itself with the views of all Iraqi political, ethnic and religious groups. "Let me say this. The team is here to listen to as many views of as many sectors of Iraqi society as possible," he said. "That includes representatives of all parties and ethnic groups."

However, the current president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Muhsin Abd al-Hamid, has said the UN's eventual ruling on the feasibility of elections will not be binding. Al-Hamid, speaking to reporters after today's meeting with Brahimi, said: "We have discussed all the possible means that lead to elections which can ensure the formation of a representative government, taking into consideration the 30 June deadline."

Washington's plan for full elections in 2005 has sparked protests by Iraqi Shi'a, who make up about 60 percent of the Iraqi population. Shi'a religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has rejected the U.S. plan and called for direct elections as soon as possible. Al-Sistani, a reclusive cleric, refuses to meet U.S. officials, but has suggested he might respect a UN verdict on polls.

Officials in Washington hope the UN team will concur with its view that early elections are impossible and help sway Shi'a leaders away from their call for an immediate direct vote.

The Governing Council wants a bigger UN role in Iraq but is split over the issue of early polls. Current Governing Council President al-Hamid has suggested that Brahimi could forge a compromise among Shi'a and the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities.

At an annual security conference in Munich, Jordan's King Abdullah yesterday suggested that it would be a mistake to push for elections too quickly. "There must be sustainable security -- security in which Iraqis are able to resolve their own problems peacefully," he said. "And it is not a question of how fast elections are held, but how well the governing institutions are built. It is the substance, not the pace of change, that will ultimately define success."

Meanwhile, a group of Japanese troops that are part of what could eventually be a force of 1,000 soldiers has arrived in the southern Iraqi city of Samawa after crossing yesterday from Kuwait. The troops traveled in a convoy that included light armored patrol vehicles, fuel tankers, and logistical equipment.

The deployment is seen as a victory for U.S. efforts to internationalize the occupation force in Iraq. But it has prompted concerns in Japan about whether the presence of the troops violates the country's pacifist constitution.

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