The report, issued yesterday by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was prepared by a team that visited Baghdad earlier this year and met with a wide range of Iraqis. It found an emerging consensus in favor of direct elections and an acknowledgment that such polls could not be properly held by 30 June. That's the date the U.S.-led coalition is due to hand over power to Iraqi authorities.
Faced with differing views among Iraqis about an interim government, the UN team limited its recommendations to electoral preparations. The report said once a consensus is reached on a regulatory framework, it would take eight months to organize credible elections. That would likely lead to elections early next year, a timetable that conforms to U.S. estimates.
UN election expert Carina Perelli, who was part of the team in Baghdad, yesterday listed some of the key issues involved in planning an election: "Reaching basic agreement in terms of who is entitled to vote, on what basis, what is the territorial basis for this vote, what is going to be the electoral system through which you are going to transform those votes afterwards into seats, how is it that we are going to register those voters, how we are going to count those votes."
As an example of the scale of work ahead, Perelli said there will need to be trained Iraqi staff at an estimated 30,000 polling sites.
The UN report says Iraqi leaders were confident they could reach political agreement on the legal framework by May.
The first step in preparing for elections, UN experts recommend, should be the creation of an independent Iraqi election commission. Their report urged that resources be made available to help form the commission.
Perelli told reporters it was important for Iraqis to see elections handled in a credible, transparent way. "Because of the distrust that exists, probably an independent electoral commission, completely set up anew for this interim election, will be probably more credible for Iraqi voters than just a sort of division or department of Ministry of Interior," she said.
Perelli said it was up to Iraqis to determine how to staff the commission but that the UN was willing to help. Amid signals from Washington that it favors a lead UN political role, UN officials say they are ready to respond to Iraqi calls for aid.
Security is one of the core challenges facing the political transition process. The UN report notes a fragile environment for elections, saying Iraq is emerging from three decades of dictatorship without basic elements of rule of law, a ruined economy, and collapsed institutions.
But the UN team said it sensed a willingness to cooperate. It noted that the term "tawafuq" (consensus building) was mentioned repeatedly by Iraqis throughout the consultations.
Perelli said UN officials found, in their experience guiding East Timor through violence-marred elections in 1999, that people are willing to face danger to control their destiny. "Let's hope that through the kind of mechanism that is an election -- which is the most inclusive kind of mechanism you can think [of] -- people start to feel that they can express choices and they have to defend also their own process, have enough ownership of the election in order to try to make it happen," she said.
Annan's chief envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, is expected to play a key role in the weeks ahead in helping to shape an Iraqi consensus on an interim government. Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, presided over the initial stages of Afghanistan's political transition and is considered one of the UN's most capable diplomats.
(The full report is available at: http://www.un.org/News/dh/iraq/rpt-fact-finding-mission.pdf)