Annan says Iraq voting not feasible until winter

Posted in Iraq | 27-Feb-04 | Author: Warren Hoge| Source: The New York Times

UNITED NATIONS, New York Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations said on Monday that credible elections could not be held in Iraq before the end of this year or the early part of 2005, and then only if planning a framework for them began immediately.

In a report to the Security Council, Annan said that his special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, and a team of UN elections experts had determined during an emergency one-week trip to Iraq that it would take until May to set up that framework and then eight months from that point to hold elections.

His report said that the first task was establishing an independent election commission to come up with the technical and legal rules and the structure for a national vote. The current American plan envisions full elections by the end of 2005.

"If the work was started immediately and the required political consensus was reached fairly rapidly, it would be possible to hold elections by the end of 2004," Annan said. "At least eight months are required to prepare a credible election in Iraq, once the legal framework is agreed upon." In conclusions that were reported last week upon his team's return to New York, Annan said that holding elections before the June 30 date for handing over power to Iraqis, as had been requested by some influential Iraqis, was not feasible. But he also said it was important that the deadline itself for transferring sovereignty be met.

He also dismissed an American-inspired caucus-based selection process for choosing a transitional government as one that "does not appear to enjoy sufficient support among Iraqis to be a viable option any longer."

It was complaints about that plan from local politicians and spiritual leaders that caused the United States to ask Annan last month to send his representatives to Iraq to assess possibilities and recommend alternatives.

In his report Monday, Annan said that while he had determined that the current arrangements were inadequate, it would be up to the Iraqis to devise the alternative.

Reiterating throughout his report that its conclusions were based on the "Iraqi consensus," he pledged United Nations assistance throughout the process. In that connection, Brahimi is expected to return to Baghdad next month.

Annan said that establishing representative government in Iraq must take into consideration the desires of the Shiite majority, which has have long felt disempowered and persecuted; of the Sunni minority, which worries about losing the authority it held under Saddam Hussein; and the Kurds in the North, who want to retain the fruits of the autonomy they have enjoyed over the past decades.

The Feb. 6-13 mission to Iraq and Monday's resulting report marked the re-engagement of the United Nations in Iraq, six months after its Baghdad headquarters was bombed, costing the lives of 22 people, including the mission head, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Annan withdrew his team from the Iraqi capital at that time.

Annan had been a vocal opponent of the war, and the Security Council last spring turned aside efforts by the United States and Britain to pass a resolution authorizing military action.

The United States had consequently excluded the United Nations from the planning for the political transition until last month, when Iraqi critics of the American arrangements made it clear they would not take political direction from the occupying authorities and would only respect alternatives approved by the United Nations.

The report was released in New York while Annan was on a trip to Japan.

Briefing reporters in New York, Carina Perelli, the head of the UN Election Assistance Division, said that the security situation in Iraq was very bad but that the United Nations had conducted other elections under similar conditions. She cited the 1999 vote in East Timor as an example.

She said that setting up a credible electoral process was itself a way to combat violence and disruption. "We find that if people buy into the process, they become the first to protect the right to vote," she said.

The naming of the new election commission would be up to the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, she said, since it was the existing governing authority.

As a way of illustrating how complicated and broad the commission's duties would be, she noted that there would have to be 30,000 polling places and a minimum of four trained staff people at each site.

Receiving Annan's report Monday were the members of the Security Council, the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority, but Perelli said it would shortly be available to everyone.

In his cover letter to China's Wang Guangya, current president of the Security Council, Annan said the United Nations team had helped an Iraqi consensus emerge "on the need for direct national elections, to be prepared and held under optimal technical security and political conditions."

As for the future, he went on: "There remain a number of important outstanding questions. These include the choice of a transitional mechanism that would enjoy the broadest support among Iraqi constituencies and how to implement such a mechanism."