RAY SUAREZ: The Bush administration had requested the U.N. send its election experts. We get two views of the challenges for the U.N. team and running elections in Iraq.
Nancy Soderberg is vice president of the International Crisis Group. That's a nonprofit organization that works to contain conflict. She served on the U.S. delegation to the U.N. in the Clinton administration. Gordon Streeb is associate executive director of peace programs at the Carter Center.
Ambassador Soderberg, the U.S. has asked the U.N. to go in. Ayatollah Sistani asked the U.N. to go in. What is the feeling that the U.N. can do that right now the U.S. cannot?
NANCY SODERBERG: Well, the one thing that the U.S. lacks in Iraq is legitimacy. As the Iraqis begin to take control over their own affairs, they are increasingly resistant to ideas that are coming from the United States. Increasingly any proposals from Washington are dead on arrival. What the U.N. can do here is break the impasse between what the U.S. is proposing and what Iraqis are increasingly calling for. So Kofi Annan will send this team out probably within the next ten days. They will come back with some ideas that will help bridge the growing divide of the politics between Baghdad and Washington.
RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Streeb, break the impasse even if the U.N. ends up siding with the U.S. on the feasibility of elections?
GORDON STREEB: Well, the U.N. certainly has a lot of options. They've had experience in multiple countries around the world that have gone through transitions. They know some of those that have worked and some that haven't. So the advantage of the United Nations is they can get together with all of the senior political leaders in Iraq and explain to them what the benefits and the pitfalls are on various options, and hopefully that would help break this impasse to be more convincing to them that there is less to fear here by suggestions coming from an organization like the United Nations.
RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Streeb, does the United Nations have an interest in really stepping up to the plate at this point after there's been a less than big welcome on the part of the U.S. previously?
GORDON STREEB: Everyone has an interest in getting this situation resolved and putting in place a transition in Iraq that's durable. The U.N.'s experience is that in most countries, unless you allow for about a three-year transition period, the chances of that government surviving are fairly low. So the United Nations definitely wants to put in place a transition, and I think we have to emphasize here we are indeed talking about putting in place a transitional government, not the permanent government. That should give people within Iraq some solace that they do not have to be overly concerned about making compromises at this point, because they will eventually have a chance to form a constitution and a permanent government.
In that case, they would then be able to protect the rights of minorities. This is a concern for many people. They would be able to present their own agendas in terms of whether this is a secular or Islamic-based state. All of the various options that they might be faced with. But they don't have to concern themselves with making too many compromises at this point when we're talking about an interim government.
RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Soderberg, Ayatollah Sistani has pulled back his demonstrators from the streets of Shia-dominated cities in response to the U.N.'s announcement that it's going to be on its way. Is this a good sign?
NANCY SODERBERG: It is. I think the fact that Sistani has said that he will listen closely to whatever the U.N. recommends is a very positive sign and one that gives hope both in the U.N. and in Washington that these gaps can be bridged. What the U.S. has to do is listen to both the Iraqis and the U.N. and come up with something that not holds to a specific timetable but is credible in the Iraqi views. What will happen here is the U.N. will go out there and come up with a range of options that will provide some fodder for discussion between the two. They have to be flexible in Washington to not have a rigid timetable although early elections, early processes are clearly in everyone's interest. In talking to people at the U.N. today, it's very clear they will agree that, with Washington, that elections are not feasible on the May-June timetable that Sistani is proposing. Their trick will be to propose some ideas that will be both early and credible of a transfer for power.
The U.N. could say, "Well, we can organize elections in 2005." That's not going to meet neither Washington nor Baghdad's timetable. Their test is to say, "Well, should we have a loya jirga process that we didn't in Afghanistan? Should we have indirect elections or is there a way to make the caucus proposals more amenable and more Iraq-friendly?" As we were just hearing, I think this does not have to be a perfect process.
If you look what the U.N. did in Afghanistan, for instance, the bond process that set up the interim government there was very messy. There was lots of rough compromises made in the back room deals, but it was seen as an Afghan-driven process and a U.N.-driven process. That's what they need to duplicate here, a U.N.-Iraqi process that the U.S. is not seen as driving. That will be legitimate. You can make mid-course corrections as the process goes forward, but it will be seen as Baghdad's mistakes and not Washington's. That's the high task for the secretary-general to come up with.
RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Streeb, are there any models in the recent past of the U.N. either putting up an election machinery or running elections that is a parallel to Iraq's that might give you some institutional memory to work with?
GORDON STREEB: You can start back with South Africa in 1994 in terms of the last decade. Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Bosnia. In all of these situations, the critical element was, was there a political accommodation within the country? In the cases that failed, there was never really the solid political basis. The consensus among the people as to what was the nature of the government and as a result many of those failed.
So I think the best example could be South Africa '94. The ANC was very patient, waited over three years until they actually conducted the elections. At that time, there were some compromises made. They did not have a national registry. They voted, essentially went to the polls and registered by voting at the polls and so forth. So I would look back to something like South Africa where there was a patient process, but it was built on a consensus coming out among the political actors as to the nature of the government.
RAY SUAREZ: But Ambassador Soderberg, do you think they have three years in this case? Don't they have to move more quickly?
NANCY SODERBERG: I think they do. I think that South Africa, you had a majority population supporting basically the African National Congress, so it was much easier to get a consensus there. Then you had the white minority government. This is a different situation in Iraq where you have the Kurds in the North who have been autonomous. You have a majority of the country being the Shias, which the U.S. is trying to avoid having take over the country, which is something they might have thought about before they were calling for democracy in Iraq.
Then, of course, you have the Sunnis who have been discredited by their association with Saddam. So it's a very difficult and different process, but I think what you'll see is a decision to have a process that involves the leaders of the Iraqi political process, less reliance on the external forces of Chalabi that Washington has been relying so closely on and engaging with the political leadership in Iraq to come up with some formula. It will not be a perfect process that does this quickly and transfers power over to them.
Once you have an Iraqi government, then you could have a longer process -- I suspect less than three years -- to try and have elections and new constitution once they take over. But Iraq is a special breed. It's hard to draw exact historical parallels. You'll draw a little bit from South Africa, I think probably a lot more from Afghanistan, which is probably more similar. To answer your earlier question, the U.N. has vast experience in this. They've been doing this extensively over the last 20, 30 years. They've got an enormous wealth of talent here, and these are conversations that the U.S. should have been having last May with the United Nations rather than sidelining them through this process. Better late than never, and they're beginning these conversations now.
You also have to remember the U.S. is not rushing back into Iraq. They are still deeply wounded by the loss of their colleagues in the Aug. 19 bombing sending a very small team. This will be just, you know, probably a four-person security and election advisor team -- very small -- probably less than, you know, four to six people. They will be very heavily protected. They'll come back with recommendations. That's a very far step from the U.N. actually going in and recommending this. They do not feel that conditions are right for them to go back in any large, political way. So they're going to take their time going back. I think their preference in talking to people at the U.N. headquarters is to let this process play out and have the U.N. only go in much later down the road when the Iraqis themselves are firmly in control.
RAY SUAREZ: Ambassadors Soderberg and Streeb, thank you both.
NANCY SODERBERG: My pleasure.