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U.N. Decision Against Early Elections Evokes Mixed Reactions in Iraq

BY Admin  February 20, 2004 at 2:56 PM EST

Iraq’s majority Shiite community largely voiced disappointment over the U.N. decision to postpone a direct vote, though many still want U.N. involvement in running the elections before the end of the year. Meanwhile, the minority Sunni population welcomed the delay due to fears that the well-organized Shiite majority could sweep an early vote.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Thursday joined with the Bush administration in finding that a direct vote in Iraq before June 30 was impossible. Annan emphasized that Iraqis were responsible for coming up with a caretaker administration, but said the United Nations would be involved in that process.

The main challenge to U.S. handover plans came from the influential Shiite cleric leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who demanded an early direct vote. Al-Sistani recently derailed a U.S. plan to choose the legislators in regional caucuses, which many Shiites suspected the United States would try to manipulate.

In an interview with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, al-Sistani said he would accept only a short delay in elections. He also insisted that any non-elected administration have strictly limited powers.

In a formal statement released by his office, the powerful Shiite cleric appeared to accept the U.N. ruling but called for guarantees that the United Nations would be involved in organizing elections and creating a caretaker government.

On Friday, several hundred Shiites demonstrated in al-Sistani’s hometown of Najaf in support of his call for quick elections.

Iraqi politicians on Friday also provided mixed reactions to the U.N. report, ranging from outright dismissal of the U.N. findings to a tentative acceptance of a delay.

The Iraqi National Congress, whose Shiite leader Ahmad Chalabi is also a member of the Governing Council, said Friday that elections were still possible before June 30 and called Annan’s findings a nonbinding opinion.

“We also said before the U.N. delegation came to Baghdad that we are not obligated to their opinion. This is after all an Iraqi issue and we must solve it ourselves and we will take them as adviser,” INC spokesman Entifadh Qanbar told the Associated Press.

Hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr rejected Annan’s recommendation, saying through a representative: “We think that elections can be held before the end of June, and we reject the postponement idea.”

However, others on the Governing Council appeared to accept Annan’s recommendation and said they would discuss alternatives after receiving a formal report.

“Elections are a must, but it is impossible right now,” said Nasser al-Chadechi, a Sunni Arab. “Now, we have many options to look at with the United Nations and the Iraqi people.”

Mahmoud Othman, a Sunni Kurd, said Annan’s decision was “realistic and expected.”

Without early elections or regional caucuses, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority will hand over power to an Iraqi caretaker government until direct elections can be held.

U.S. administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer insisted Thursday that the handover take place by June 30 as planned. The favored U.S. option is to expand the existing 25-member Iraqi Governing Council.

“There are 133 days before sovereignty returns to an Iraqi government on June 30th,” Bremer said. “Changes in the mechanism performing an interim government are possible, but the date holds.”

Iraq’s Governing Council is hammering out the details of a preliminary constitution — popularly known as the basic law — that will outline the structure of a new caretaker government. Yet, that preliminary document has already become the source of sectarian arguments, especially over the role of religion and federalism in the new Iraqi government. The document was due to be completed by Feb. 28.

Though Annan did not offer specific alternatives to help resolve the issue, he said the United Nations will work with Iraqis to choose a way that has the broadest possible support in creating a caretaker government.

Annan is also prepared to send U.N. special envoy to Iraq Lakdar Brahimi back to Baghdad in the coming weeks to help devise a workable plan for the creation of an interim government before direct elections.

“We hope that as we move forward, we’ll be able to work with the Iraqis and the coalition to find a mechanism for establishing a caretaker or interim government until such time as elections are organized,” Annan said Thursday.