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UN team meets with Iraq council
Updated: 2004-02-09 09:27

A U.N. team that will judge if Iraq can hold elections before a U.S. handover of power on June 30 met Iraq's U.S.-backed Governing Council Sunday, vowing to help Iraq bury the "ordeal" of its past and become sovereign.

The United Nations team is under pressure to find a solution that will satisfy both Washington -- which says it is impossible to hold polls so soon -- and Iraq's majority Shi'ites who say the country must be allowed to choose its leaders directly.

The United Nations envoy to Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi (L) walks with Abdel Aziz al-Hakim (R) the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIR) after their meeting in Baghdad on February 8, 2004.  [Reuters]
In a boost for Washington, the first members of a Japanese force the United States has persuaded come to Iraq entered the country from Kuwait, in Japan's most controversial military deployment since World War II.

U.S. President Bush, under fire for failing to find the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction he originally gave as grounds for going to war in Iraq, Sunday defended his decision.

Hoping to halt a poll ratings slide before November's presidential election, Bush told NBC's 'Meet the Press' that even if Saddam Hussein did not have such weapons he had acquired dangerous know-how.

"He had the capacity to have a weapon, make a weapon. We thought he had weapons.... But he had the capacity to make a weapon and then let that weapon fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network," Bush said.

Former chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix criticized the way Western leaders had used intelligence to justify the war. Britain's Tony Blair is also facing criticism at home.

"The intention was to dramatize it (the intelligence) just as the vendors of some merchandise are trying to exaggerate the importance of what they have," Blix, who had wanted more time to search for Iraq's weapons before the U.S.-led invasion, told the BBC.


The U.N. delegation arrived in Baghdad Saturday. It is the highest-level presence for the world body in Iraq since it pulled out after two bomb attacks on its Iraq offices last year, including one that killed mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Lakhdar Brahimi, an adviser to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan leading the delegation, said his team had an open mind on the question of elections.

"The United Nations only confirms its firm desire to do everything possible to help the Iraqi people...to get beyond the long ordeal they have suffered and to restore their independence and sovereignty and rebuild Iraq," he told reporters.
Washington says there is not enough time or security to organize polls before June 30, when it plans to hand over power to Iraqis. It wants regional caucuses to choose a provisional government that would rule before full elections in 2005.

Britain's Prince Charles (L) talks with leading local cleric Sheikh Maithan Al Sehlani (R) at the Basra palace in Iraq February 8, 2004.  [Reuters]
The plan provoked massive protests by Iraqi Shi'ites, who make up 60 per cent of the population, after their most revered religious leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani rejected it.

Washington hopes the U.N. team will agree early elections are impossible, and that Sistani will respect that view. The Governing Council is split on the issue and has warned that while it welcomes advice, the U.N. verdict is not binding.

"Brahimi's wisdom in resolving conflicts in the Arab and Islamic world proves that he will give us advice that allows us to take the right decision in the interest of the Iraqi people," current council head Mohsin Abdel Hamid told reporters.


The deployment of the Japanese troops is a victory for U.S. efforts to internationalize its occupation of Iraq, but has aroused fears in Japan about whether their presence violates its pacifist constitution, and over the safety of the troops.

Asked how he felt entering Iraq, Major Etsuji Yukuwa, one of the first on a mission which could bring 1,000 troops to the region, told Reuters: "So-so. I am excited. But of course I feel that maybe there will be terrorist (attacks) against us. I have some fear."

Iraqi police -- viewed by many Iraqis as collaborating with U.S. forces -- said a bomb in a police station south of Baghdad killed three officers and wounded 11 others Saturday.

In Tikrit, police said an Iraqi officer had been shot dead by U.S. forces while wearing uniform. A U.S. spokesman said American troops had been fired on first.

Security was tight for a visit to British troops in Basra by Britain's Prince Charles. Charles spent almost six hours with soldiers, officials of the U.S.-led administration and prominent local Iraqis. The visit was not announced until after he left.

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