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Iraq: Interest Mounts At UN Over Political Course

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan presides over a series of important meetings today that will lead to his recommendation over the form Iraq's political transition should take. Among those meeting Annan is his influential aide Lakhdar Brahimi, who has already signaled that direct elections should not be held ahead of the planned 30 June transfer-of-power date. U.S. officials say they will give strong consideration to Annan's recommendation.

United Nations, 19 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- UN electoral experts and representatives of key member states meet today with Secretary-General Kofi Annan for crucial consultations on Iraq's political future.

Annan is due to hold separate meetings with the electoral team, led by Lakhdar Brahimi, which visited with all main Iraqi parties last week. He also meets diplomats from the "Friends of Iraq" group, which now totals nearly 40 countries, and the Security Council.

The secretary-general has said he hoped to issue a recommendation before his four-day trip to Japan tomorrow. But UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said yesterday he may need more time to reach a decision. "We'll have to see," he said. "It will be a bit of a challenge to get this done before he goes on Friday morning and we'll have to see after his meeting with Mr. Brahimi tomorrow [18 February] morning how they plan to handle it."

Brahimi told reporters in Iraq last weekend that he supports direct elections but that if they were rushed, they could aggravate political tensions.

UN officials are reported to favor transferring power to a sovereign government on 30 June and holding elections soon afterward. That would mark a compromise between Shi'a leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's call for elections prior to the transfer of power and the original U.S. plan to select the sovereign government through caucuses and hold general elections next year.

The Associated Press yesterday quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying Annan is expected to advise against direct elections before 30 June. And an article in "The New York Times" today cites unnamed UN diplomats as saying Annan's final recommendation may come no earlier than the end of next week.

U.S. officials have repeatedly said they are open to changes except for the 30 June deadline of transferring authority. U.S. ambassador to the UN John Negroponte reaffirmed this yesterday: "The disposition in Washington and in Baghdad is one of great interest in what [Annan's] recommendations are, and I think that we will do our best to accommodate his suggestions."

UN diplomats say there is a growing sense among member states of the need to participate in Iraq's stabilization. Annan will gauge the level of international support in a meeting with a loosely affiliated group known as the "Friends of Iraq," which emerged during the Madrid donor conference last autumn.

Annan last met with the group in December. Members included Iraq's immediate neighbors -- Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey -- as well as Egypt and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Eckhard told reporters yesterday that the Friends of Iraq group is "increasing by the minute."

One of the permanent council members, China, affirmed yesterday that it plans to reopen its embassy in Baghdad. China's UN ambassador, Wang Guangya, told reporters his country is intent on restoring its relations with Iraq. Chinese officials, he said, have indicated it is safe enough to reopen the embassy. "As far as our staff's comments are concerned about the security situation, they said that the security situation is bad but not as bad as people expected," he said.

Amid a stream of new proposals in Iraq for power sharing, the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council says it is moving forward on an interim constitution, or basic law, which is to give a legal framework for a transitional government. The draft of the basic law is due by the end of this month.