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UN expected to intervene in Iraqi election dispute
( 2004-01-20 13:24) (Agencies)

The United Nations appeared likely to accept a request from Iraqi leaders and the United States on Monday to send a mission to Baghdad that might help resolve an impasse on electing an interim government by July.

A man shouts while wearing a portrait of Iraq's most revered Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, during a demonstration in Baghdad by tens of thousands of Iraqi protesters demanding elections Jan. 19, 2004. Tens of thousands of Shi'ite Muslims marched through Baghdad on Monday demanding elections in a clear signal to Iraq's U.S. governor as he prepared to tell the United Nations that any vote is impractical until next year. [Reuters]
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters further discussions were necessary before he could make a decision to dispatch what he called a "technical" team, but diplomats expected a positive response.

Annan also said he had no date for the United Nations to return to Iraq, after withdrawing staff for security reasons in late October, but wanted the world body to play a vital role.

At issue is a demand from Iraq's most revered Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for direct elections immediately for a provisional government.

The U.S.-led occupation, known as the Coalition Provisional Authority, has called for a new national assembly to be established through a complicated caucus procedure rather than through direct elections.

"Both the Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority have expressed a strong wish that the United Nations should send a technical mission to Iraq to advise on feasibility of elections or, if not, what alternative would be possible," Annan said.

"We have agreed that further discussions should take place at the technical level," Annan told a news conference after meeting Iraqi leaders and U.S. and British envoys. He agreed last week to send a four-member security team to Iraq.

Nevertheless, diplomats expected a positive reply from Annan over the next week. "As soon as people at the U.N. agree to consider something, they are on a slope they can't get off," one U.N. Security Council envoy said.

The interim Iraqi government is to take power by July 1 after which Iraqis are to write a constitution and plan for elections for a permanent government by the end of 2005.

A Sistani ally told reporters that if the United Nations sent a mission, its findings would be accepted by the Shi'ite leader.

"We would like a technical committee to be sent to look into and consider the matter of elections in Iraq," said Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Governing Council member. "Then this conclusion will be respected by Mr. Sistani."

In Baghdad, up to 100,000 Iraqis marched peacefully through the center of the Iraqi capital on Monday to show support for Sistani. Shi'ites make up more than 60 percent of the Iraqi population.

All the people are with you, Sayyed Ali," the crowd chanted. "Yes, yes to unity. Yes, yes to elections."


Annan himself called the Monday meeting to get what he called some "clarity" on a future U.N. political role in Iraq. The session included Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq; his British counterpart, Jeremy Greenstock; and a delegation from the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, led by its current president, Adnan Pachachi.

Annan said earlier he did not believe there was enough time to organize fair elections before the handover of power and repeated it on Monday, saying: "I don't believe there may be enough time between now and May to hold elections."

The Bush administration would like the team to be led by Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister, who has just finished a two-year stint in Afghanistan and will become a U.N. adviser in New York. Both Bremer and Greenstock spoke to Brahimi, diplomats said, but no decision was made.

Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, told reporters that Annan "has agreed seriously and with urgency to consider this request."

"The CPA hopes the U.N. will return to play a role in Iraq and we hope that happens soon," Bremer said.


Annan has said repeatedly Iraq was too dangerous since he ordered out international staff in October, following two attacks on U.N. offices and humanitarian organizations in Baghdad. An Aug. 19 blast killed 22 people, including the U.N. mission head, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

On Sunday, a truck bomb exploded in front of the U.S.-led occupation headquarters, killing at least 20 people. The blast, one of the worst since the Aug. 19 attack on its headquarters, is likely to add to U.N. apprehensions about returning to Baghdad.

Annan told reporters Iraqis and the CPA offered to provide "full security" for U.N. personnel in Iraq.

In addition, the United Nations is reluctant to validate a process the world body had no role in formulating. The United Nations is also looking for a clear mandate from Iraqis and the country's neighbors.

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