UN team to finalize Iraq sovereignty plan

Posted in Iraq | 20-Feb-04 | Author: Warren Hoge| Source: The New York Times

UNITED NATIONS, New York With his special envoy to Iraq and a team of election experts returning from their emergency mission to Baghdad, Secretary General Kofi Annan moved Wednesday to develop a United Nations recommendation on how best to transfer power back to Iraq by the agreed June 30 deadline.

The envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, was due to arrive in New York on Wednesday night, but an associate on his weeklong visit to Iraq was already at work at UN headquarters drafting a report on his findings about the political situation in the country.

Carina Perelli, head of the Electoral Assistance Division, and her team of experts were preparing a separate report on the technical aspects of holding elections that UN officials said would become an explanatory annex to Brahimi's conclusions.

Annan said Tuesday that he hoped to have his recommendation ready before he leaves for Japan on Friday, but aides subsequently cautioned that the timetable was too tight and that the final decision would probably await his return to New York in a week.

The task is a crucial one for the United Nations, which was excluded from participation in postwar Iraq by the Bush administration until Iraqi leaders complained about the American plans for transferring power and requested UN intervention. Annan sent in Brahimi, a 70-year-old former Algerian foreign minister whose reputation for resolving conflicts in the Muslim world was enhanced by his just-completed two years of service as the top UN diplomat in Afghanistan.

Brahimi plans to meet with Annan Thursday morning and then brief the Security Council on his trip.

Among the people whom Brahimi saw in Iraq was Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of the Shiite Muslim majority, whose demands for direct elections in place of the U.S. plan for indirect, caucus-based voting caused the Bush administration to rethink its initiative. The Americans acted after Sistani refused to deal directly with them but said he would drop his objections if a UN team came to Iraq and decided direct elections were not feasible under the existing time frame.

While in Iraq, Brahimi made it clear he thought that credible elections could not be set up in such a short period, and it is expected that his report will reach that conclusion. "Conducting elections without adequate preparations could lead to even more disagreements," he said in a Baghdad news conference.

That part of Brahimi's report is likely to be made public this week, but the recommendations on what procedure ought to be adopted will probably be put off until late next week. Brahimi is traveling to Japan on a separate trip, and he and Annan will be able to continue their consultations on Iraq there, UN officials said.

Senior UN diplomats say that they expect the final report to conclude that it is important for all sides to stick to the transfer of power date of June 30. Though the date was once suspect at the United Nations as one directed by Bush administration concerns over removing Iraq as an issue in the U.S. election, diplomats now believe that Iraqis themselves have given the date such symbolic importance that it would be unwise to change it.

Among the options Annan will be exploring is the transfer of sovereignty on June 30 to an expanded version of the Iraqi Governing Council that would add members in an effort to be seen as more representative to Iraqis who do not accept the legitimacy of the present American-appointed 25-person panel.

Such a plan would have the advantage of providing political continuity as the country passes into Iraqi control, but Annan believes it will only work if the new body looks distinctly different from the present one.

The current American transition plan calls for caucuses to be held across Iraq's 18 provinces to select members of an assembly, who would then form an interim government. National elections would follow by the end of 2005.

However, UN officials believe that the caucus plan has been largely discredited in Iraq and should be replaced or radically amended.

Annan's challenge is to come up with a new plan that guarantees that the interim government reflects Iraq's ethnic disparities while not giving dominant power to the Shiite majority, leaving the Sunni minority feeling disenfranchised or underrepresenting the autonomous Iraqi Kurds and spurring secessionist sentiment among them.