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Iraq: UN Will Seek Consensus On Political Transition

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan plans to intensify contacts with Iraqi leaders to break the impasse over the country's political transition. Annan says Iraqis favor direct elections but there is now a consensus that they cannot be properly conducted before the 30 June deadline for the U.S.-led coalition to hand over power to Iraqis. RFE/RL looks at the challenges facing UN officials as the time for Iraqi sovereignty draws near.

United Nations, 20 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- UN officials say they will step up efforts to find agreement among Iraqis on a plan for an interim government to run the country beginning on 1 July.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday there is a consensus view that it's not realistic to hold direct elections before the scheduled 30 June transfer of power from U.S. to Iraqi authorities.

"In the end the people who are involved in the [Iraqi] Governing Council are pretty rational and pretty capable of coming up with a good judgment."
With U.S. and Iraqi officials committed to the 30 June deadline, the question now is how to form a transitional governing structure.

UN diplomats said such a body is likely to rule until early next year, when preparations can be finished to hold proper general elections.

Annan held meetings yesterday with his electoral experts, top aide Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Security Council, and representatives of dozens of other countries. He said afterward that UN officials will work with Iraqis to "design a mechanism" for a caretaker government.

"We have absolutely no preferred options. We need to have the Iraqis discuss it. They must take ownership, discuss it among themselves, and we will try to work with them to find a consensus," Annan said.

Annan's office will deliver a report next week with more details on his recommendations for elections, including a suggested timeframe for elections for a permanent government.

Many diplomats said it makes most sense to hold such elections early next year. Shi'a leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had called for direct elections by 30 June but backed off the demand after talks with Brahimi last week in the holy Shi'a city of Al-Najaf.

Germany's UN ambassador, Guenter Pleuger, said after the Security Council meeting with Annan that it will be a challenge to find a viable interim plan among many options. He stressed that elections must be conducted properly.

"Obviously, Brahimi convinced [al-Sistani] that in that short period of time you can't do it. But there was a consensus among all Iraqis Brahimi talked to that a legitimate government can only come from free and fair elections, and they have to do it in a way so that they can take place under optimal conditions," Pleuger said.

Another Security Council diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL there is a sense that the U.S. proposal for regional caucuses is not a viable option.

Diplomats say one approach under consideration is to expand the U.S.-selected Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and authorize it to choose an interim government. But there is still the challenge of making sure the selection process of IGC members is seen as legitimate.

Noah Feldman is a law professor at New York University who is advising the IGC on writing its constitution.

He tells RFE/RL that the best option for Iraqis is something similar to the process set out by the Bonn accords for Afghanistan, which is supposed to culminate in elections this June. Annan is taking the right approach, he said, in trying to solicit broad Iraqi support for a process.

"It's not going to be easy but that's the right rhetoric for the secretary-general to use. And in the end the people who are involved in the [Iraqi] Governing Council are pretty rational and pretty capable of coming up with a good judgment," Feldman said.

Feldman stressed that any measures approved by the IGC must also gain the support of Ayatollah al-Sistani, who holds great influence over the country's majority Shi'as. Feldman believes that al-Sistani would back an Afghan-style process, in which a broad-based interim administration prepares the way for elections.

"I think there's a chance that that will satisfy Ayatollah Sistani. That's about the only chance we've got and if we don't satisfy al-Sistani we're in serious trouble," Feldman said.

The IGC is due to finish drafting an interim constitution next week. The document will try to resolve the questions of federalism and the role of Islam in the government.

U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer says the draft should acknowledge the Islamic nature of Iraq but it must be based on secular democratic principles.