Prague, 18 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The UN has yet to say precisely when it will give its assessment of how the U.S. should hand over political power to a sovereign Iraqi government. But there are strong hints it could be by the end of this week.
Asked yesterday when he would complete his report, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he "should be able to do that" before he leaves for a trip to Japan on 20 February.
Meanwhile, all parties in the debate over how to form Iraq's future government say they will take the UN's opinions into account before making their next moves.
UN officials are reported to favor transferring power to a sovereign government on 30 June and holding elections soon afterward.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said yesterday that the U.S. administration has an "open mind" and will consider the UN recommendations carefully.
But Powell also indicated Washington continues to see caucuses as a central option to be considered for choosing the coming government. He remarked: "Is a caucus still the best way to do it or can the caucus process be refined -- or is there some other procedure that might be used to reflect the will of the Iraqi people?"
However, if Washington still wants to press ahead with caucuses, it will not find much support in Baghdad. Most of the members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) -- which once agreed with Washington to hold provincial caucuses -- have now withdrawn their backing for the idea.
That crumbling of support began after pre-eminent Shi'a leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani demanded the holding of full-scale elections before the 30 June transfer of power.
Direct elections to form the sovereign government would assure a dominant voice for Iraq's 60 percent Shi'a majority. By contrast, a caucus system often provides a way to balance the interests of competing groups -- which in Iraq include large Sunni and Kurd minorities.
Shi'a representatives on the IGC have backed al-Sistani's call for elections, but the U.S. has said there is not sufficient time to organize fair elections before 30 June.
Mahmoud Othman, an independent member of the IGC, tells RFE/RL that there are now numerous approaches being advanced by council members: "Already people talk about elections, or partial elections, or caucuses. Some people talk about expanding the IGC [into a sovereign government]. Some people talk about having a jirga or a wider conference for Iraqis inside and outside the IGC [to select or endorse a sovereign administration]. So these options are discussed."
But Othman adds that all those who are advancing proposals recognize that no consensus can be achieved until the UN makes its recommendations: "We are waiting for the UN decision, because the UN delegation was here and met with so many Iraqis. They took points of view. They listened to everybody, and then they went back to New York. They are supposed to give us their opinion in the following two or three days, so that will also be put into consideration."
Before leaving Iraq last week, special UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned that hastily arranged elections risk dividing the country rather than uniting it.
UN officials are reported to favor transferring power to a sovereign government on 30 June and holding elections soon afterward. If so, that would be a compromise between al-Sistani's demand for elections prior to the transfer of power and the original U.S. plan to select the sovereign government now through caucuses and follow up with general elections sometime in 2005.
As the Iraqi parties wait to hear from the UN, the number of new proposals they are putting forward increases almost hourly.
Some Shi'a leaders proposed a plan yesterday that calls for immediate elections for a sovereign government in only those areas of Iraq where security permits. Mowaffak al-Rubaie, an independent Shi'a member of the IGC, said "there are places secure enough where we can hold elections right now.... Those places happen to be in the north and in the south."
But key Sunni political leaders immediately objected to any elections that would exclude the restive center of Iraq -- the so-called "Sunni triangle." Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni member of the IGC, said it "doesn't make any sense" for only the north and south to vote. "If the center of Iraq is not involved," he asked, "how could Iraq be considered a sovereign power?"
An additional problem with partial elections could be that the popularly elected members of a government might be seen as having greater legitimacy than those chosen or appointed by other means.
Some Shi'a leaders said yesterday they would back away from demands for immediate elections if their community is assured a majority role in the coming government. Adel Abdel Mahdi, a senior official of the best organized Shi'a political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), said "there are two choices -- elections, or compromises that respect the existing balances."
Shi'a representatives currently hold some 60 percent of the seats on the 25-member IGC. The Shi'a demand to respect "existing balances" comes as some Sunni parties say they want any expansion of the IGC into a sovereign government to end the Shi'a majority. Hachim al-Hassani, a spokesman for the Sunni-based Iraqi Islamic Party, said yesterday that "expansion should give equal representation between the Sunnis -- Arabs, Kurds and Turkomans -- and the Shiites from the other side." There was no immediate response to his proposal from the Kurdish and Turkoman parties.