Al-Sistani also wants Iraq's future interim government -- which is due to assume power from the U.S.-led coalition by the end of June -- to focus its duties exclusively on the elections.
A statement issued by al-Sistani says the interim body should have "extended powers in order to prepare transparent and free elections," but should "run the country without taking important decisions." The Shi'a leader also demanded a UN Security Council resolution guaranteeing the elections would not be postponed.
Al-Sistani's statement backs down from an earlier demand that elections be held by the scheduled transfer of power on 30 June. A United Nations mission recently recommended that there was not sufficient time to organize free and fair elections by that date.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan discussed the recommendations earlier this week, while speaking before the Japanese parliament. "The [UN election] team found a consensus among Iraqis that elections are a necessary step in the process of building democratic governance and reconstruction, but also that the 30 June deadline for the transfer of sovereignty to a provisional government should be maintained. Unfortunately, credible elections cannot take place by 30 June 2004," he said.
"First of all, there hasn't been enough consultation of that basic law, and not many Iraqis have seen a draft of it. So if a law is issued tomorrow, many Iraqis will be angry. Regardless of what is in it, people will be angry that they haven't been consulted."
Al-Sistani appears to have accepted the UN advice. But his proposal to hold elections within the year may still have an impact on U.S. plans to transfer power to the Iraqis. The United States currently envisages a first round of elections in March 2005 to choose a body to write a new constitution. Direct elections for a new Iraqi government would then be held by the end of December 2005.
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civil administrator in Iraq, last week stressed it would not be possible to hold direct elections in the next 12 to 15 months -- let alone within the year, as al-Sistani has proposed. "The most important problems are technical ones, as UN specialists pointed out when they were here last week,” Bremer said. “Iraq has no election law. It has no electoral commission to even establish a law. It has no law governing political parties. It has no voters' lists. It has not had a credible, reliable census in almost 20 years. There are no constituent boundaries to decide where elections would take place."
Some observers, however, see a possible compromise. Yahia Said of the London School of Economics and Political Science says al-Sistani's proposal to have the interim Iraqi government focus exclusively on elections could mean faster progress on Bremer's areas of concerns. "[The United States] will get the transfer of power. They will get some form of an official ending to their occupier status. And at the same time, those Iraqis who are worried that power will be given to a government with limited legitimacy -- their worries will be alleviated because that government will only have responsibility or right for organizing the elections," Said said.
But Said says al-Sistani's proposal could complicate the adoption of the country's basic law, which will lay the groundwork for a permanent constitution. The work on the basic law is due to be finished tomorrow.
The Agence France Presse news agency quoted anonymous members of the Iraqi Governing Council as saying that it remains unclear whether problems over federalism and the future role of Islam and women will be resolved in time. The agency quoted a source close to negotiations as saying that "everything is in flux."
Said himself does not believe the council will adopt the basic law on schedule. "I am doubtful that they will. There are several problems there," he said. "First of all, there hasn't been enough consultation of that basic law, and not many Iraqis have seen a draft of it. So if a law is issued tomorrow, many Iraqis will be angry. Regardless of what is in it, people will be angry that they haven't been consulted."
Said says that ultimately, the future of the basic law depends on what responsibilities will be given to the interim government. He says if the government appointed on 30 June will only work until elections are held, it is not necessary to develop a fully fledged constitution right now -- just a set of temporary rules.
Said says there is a possibility the Governing Council will produce something tomorrow, but that at best it will be a draft requiring further approval and discussion. "The most contentious problems will not be solved by tomorrow," he said.