Sat, Feb 28, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Cleric offers olive branch to UN

IRAQI ELECTIONS Shia cleric Ali al Sistani again made his presence felt calling for year-end elections, but his request for UN backing was thought to be conciliatory

THE GUARDIAN , BAGHDAD

Iraq's most influential Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, on Thursday called for national elections by the end of the year, but said the vote should be guaranteed by a UN resolution to convince an increasingly cynical public that there will no "more delaying and no more prolonging."

The reclusive cleric said in a written statement issued from his office in the Shia holy city of Najaf that it was "of great significance" that the UN had suggested a vote could be held by the end of the year if preparations started immediately.

His much anticipated remarks came in response to a statement by the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, who earlier this week ruled out early elections in Iraq, citing the lack of infrastructure, the absence of electoral laws and the volatile security situation.

Despite the wave of suicide bombings and the assassinations of Iraqi officials, the commander of the coalition forces, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, said yesterday that security in Iraq had been "considerably better" in the past 60 days and that the situation was "manageable for whatever government process that needs to take place."

The search for a workable political formula for Iraq before the US presidential elections has taken an increasingly urgent tone after the elderly Shia cleric's rejection of two previous plans for the transfer of sovereignty.

But critics said that the rush to meet deadlines has more to do with the forthcoming US presidential elections than it does with the well-being of Iraq.

In their attempt to satisfy Iraq's majority Shia population -- long excluded from power during eight decades of minority Sunni Arab rule -- US officials in Iraq appear to have handed Ayatollah Sistani an effective veto on the country's political future.

Yesterday's remarks are likely to be seen as something of an olive branch.

Under the Nov. 15 agreement between the occupation authorities and the US-appointed governing council, sovereignty was to be handed to a transitional government of Iraqis on June 30. The assembly would form an interim administration that would rule Iraq until the holding of full elections and the drawing up of a permanent constitution by the end of 2005.

The US had argued that elections could not be held before the transfer of power because of the absence of electoral laws and voter rolls.

But the convoluted system of appointing the assembly through a series of region-wide caucuses had to be dropped after the ayatollah's insistence on direct elections.

A new method of choosing an interim government has yet to be agreed on. Some favor an Afghan-style loya jirga of Iraq's political parties, tribes, unions and social organizations, while others think the current governing council should be expanded.

A UN team led by Lakhdar Brahimi may return to Iraq soon to help Iraqis find a mechanism.

But Ayatollah Sistani warned yesterday: "The unelected entity which will take sovereignty on June 30 is considered as an interim administration with clear and limited authority, and prepares the country for free elections without being allowed to take major decisions that could be considered as binding to the elected government."

The cleric also demanded the coalition authorities give clear guarantees of elections in the form of a UN security council resolution. But while many Iraqis would be willing to accept UN involvement in the country on a technical level, bringing back the Security Council into the heart of Iraqi political developments may prove more problematic.

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