Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking to a gathering of diplomats and students in Brussels on yesterday, said Washington would like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to expand on its recent election monitoring in Ukraine and Afghanistan to include Iraq.
"I hope that we can come together so that the OSCE will play a role in the Iraqi elections on January 30th," Powell said.
Powell did not say whether he wants the pan-European organization to send hundreds of observers to Iraq's polling sites. But he credited a similar OSCE presence in Ukraine with helping to expose fraud and persuading authorities in Kyiv to schedule a new second-vote later this month.
Still, Powell acknowledged there could be considerable reluctance in Europe about getting closely involved in Iraq's election.
He recalled that many in Europe opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But Powell said Washington is now "reaching out to Europe" and hopes Europe "will reach out to us."
Powell also called for the OSCE to monitor Palestinian elections next month.
The 55-member OSCE, which makes decisions by consensus, includes European and Central Asian countries as well as the United States and Canada. Analysts say the chances it will follow Powell's suggestion are slim.
"I think the prospects are rather small," said Edwin Bakker of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations in The Hague. "Of course, the OSCE has important experience in this field, in monitoring elections, even in troublesome regions. They have monitored, for instance, the first elections in Bosnia just after the war but the security situation at that time was better -- much, much better than in Iraq today. So, they haven't ever monitored in a situation where was more or less a civil war going on, as is the case in Iraq right now."
The U.S. effort to engage the OSCE in Iraq comes as one prominent member of the organization, Russia, has questioned whether there can be a fair poll in Iraq.
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his skepticism to visiting Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in Moscow this week.
"I honestly say that I cannot imagine how elections can be organized under a full occupation of the country by foreign troops," Putin said.
Such views can also be heard in Paris and Berlin which, like Moscow, opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"Besides Russia, I think other countries also would have these objections, that it is unethical, that it is not in line with procedures of the OSCE itself for free and fair elections," Bakker said. "In some cases when there was turmoil in a country it was argued that was an obstacle to free and fair elections, so if you take the guidelines of the OSCE itself that might be an additional problem."
He said that violence makes it difficult for candidates to move around a country and campaign as part of a free election process.
The U.S. is supported in Iraq by Britain, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands, and several other European countries that have contributed troops to the multinational force in Iraq. But polls show popular support for Washington's Iraq policy is low in these countries.
The run-up to the 30 January election has seen considerable debate in Iraq itself over how the country can hold elections given security conditions there.
Leaders of Iraq's Sunni minority have said that violence by insurgents trying to disrupt polling will make it impossible to campaign and vote in much of central Iraq. Several Sunni organizations have called for delaying the vote or boycotting it.
Still, Washington and Baghdad remain determined to hold the poll on schedule and to find some way for international voting experts to judge its success as a first step toward a more democratic Iraq.
Canada is set to host a meeting of chief electoral officials from 20 countries in Ottawa on 19 and 20 December to study preparations for Iraq's vote and ways to observe it.
But Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Canada's chief electoral officer and chair of the meeting, told Reuters this week that he believes people are not planning on sending outside observers to Iraq due to the lack of security.
Reuters reported that possible monitoring options that may be considered at the meeting include international voting officials talking to UN personnel who are helping plan the Iraqi election, to Iraqi political parties and to Iraq's own election observers.
The Ottawa meeting is also expected to include chief electoral officers from Albania, Bosnia, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and the United Kingdom as well as experts from various Arab countries.