UN pressed on sending team to aid Iraq voteAnnan indicates he would like to help but puts off decision
UNITED NATIONS, New York Secretary General Kofi Annan was asked Monday by the American, British and Iraqi overseers of Iraq to send a United Nations team to Baghdad to advise on the feasibility of speedy elections or suggest refinements in the process that now calls for indirect elections and a transfer of power to Iraq by June 30.
Striking a stance that was at once cooperative but cautious, Annan indicated he would like to help but that further meetings were necessary before he decided how to respond.
"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 at a news conference after the meeting at UN headquarters.
He said, "We have agreed that further discussions should take place at the technical level."
The American-designed political transition, a complex process involving caucuses in all 18 Iraqi provinces and the naming of an interim assembly to choose the new government, has been challenged by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite Muslim cleric in Iraq.
He has insisted on direct elections, and tens of thousands of his followers have staged demonstrations, including one Monday in Baghdad, backing his plea.
Last month, Annan sent a letter to an associate of his saying that he thought direct elections were not feasible in the short time before the June 30 transfer date.
Sistani is reported to have dismissed that letter as one written under pressure from the Americans but to have said that he might change his mind if a UN team came to Iraq and verified the judgment that holding direct elections was unreasonable in the time frame.
Annan said he personally had had no direct contact with Ayatollah Sistani, but he said, "We do have a way to get in contact with him through his entourage."
Attending the meeting with Annan were L. Paul Bremer 3rd, the American administrator in Iraq; Britain's Jeremy Greenstock, the No. 2 official at the Coalition Provisional Authority; John Negroponte, the American ambassador to the United Nations, and three other American officials - William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, Kim Holmes, assistant secretary of state for international organizations, and Robert Blackwell, director of the National Security Council.
In addition, eight members of the Iraqi Governing Council also attended the session.
The request for assistance posed a dilemma for Annan, a vocal opponent of the war, and for the United Nations, which has been disparaged by the Bush administration as dated, meddlesome and out of touch with the threat that terror poses.
The Security Council refused to approve military action last year, and the United Nations has been excluded by the United States from the political transition in Iraq that is now in trouble.
Annan is consequently wary of appearing to validate a process he had no role in formulating.
Annan removed international staff from Iraq this fall after attacks on relief workers and the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people, and sending them back in now would require greatly heightened security.
The suicide bomb blast Sunday at the gates of the U.S. administrators' compound in Baghdad that killed at least 24 people underscored the instability on the ground and reminded officials in New York that their people would be likely be targets if they went back and associated themselves with the occupying forces.
In meetings with Negroponte in recent weeks, Annan has stuck to his claim that Iraq is still too unsafe for his people and their potential role is too ill-defined for him to take the chance on recommitting.
He is said by aides to be unforgiving with himself for having sent the original UN mission to Baghdad without better preparation for its security. Among the 15 workers killed was the mission chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
The date of the bombing, Aug. 19, is still a fresh one for people in the East River headquarters in New York, many of whom counted the victims in Baghdad among their friends.
As for what duties they would have in Iraq, Annan is concerned that they be assigned to specific areas where they could have impact and not be used just to bring a degree of international legitimacy to the occupation.
Annan has set three broad conditions for the United Nations' return: "clarity" on the scope of the organization's role, security assurances, and guarantees that the responsibility would be commensurate with the risk.
He first called the meeting Monday to take up those subjects on Dec. 18.
Last week he took a further step, announcing that a four-man security team was going to Baghdad to study the conditions for existing national staff members and those from the international staff who are currently working out of Iraq mission offices in Cyprus and Jordan and might be re-entering the country.
Later Monday, the Security Council was to hear a report from Adnan Pachachi, this month's chairman of the Iraqi Governing Council, on the situation in Iraq.
The closed session will include questioning from ambassadors from some of the Security Council countries that blocked UN authorization of military action.
Jean-Marc de la Sablière of France, a prinicipal opponent, said that even the once critical members of the council were now united in their desire to see peace and stability in Iraq, and he predicted constructive questioning. "Our differences were one of principle, but the past is the past," he said.