by Maggie Farley / The Los Angeles Times –
(January 10, 2004) UNITED NATIONS — Iraqi leaders have been urging UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to oversee parts of the country’s political transition and even help override US plans for transferring power to Iraqis.
During the last 10 days, an Iraqi Governing Council president and the country’s most influential religious leader have asked for UN help in negotiating a security agreement to keep US forces in Iraq, and for an alternative plan to the US blueprint for transferring power.
Their requests reflect division within Iraq about the country’s next steps and a lack of confidence in the US-led coalition authority. “They don’t trust the US, but they don’t trust each other,” a UN diplomat said. “That doesn’t bode well.”
The requests place Annan in an awkward position, between the Iraqis and the Americans — a spot he has been trying to avoid. The Bush administration has made it clear that it doesn’t want Annan or the UN to be involved in the security agreement. “I can’t imagine what place the UN would have negotiating a bilateral agreement between the United States and Iraq,” a State Department official said.
Shite Cleric Derides US’ Transitional Government
On Wednesday, Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said in a statement in Najaf that Washington’s plans to create a transitional government would not “ensure in any way the fair representation of the Iraqi people.”
UN officials and diplomats said Thursday that Sistani’s repeated request for direct elections may be a strategy to increase pressure on Washington before a Jan. 19 meeting of Governing Council members, Annan and representatives from the US-led authority.
Jeremy Greenstock, the top British representative to Iraq, said in Baghdad this week that Sistani seemed to understand the time constraints but wanted to “just have [his opinion] out there that elections are the right way to do this.” Greenstock is to attend the Jan.uary19 meeting to discuss the UN’s role. The US has not yet decided who, if anyone, will represent it at the meeting.
Washington’s Reluctance to Negotiate
Senior US officials canceled their plans to meet with Annan today, leaving it to the US and British ambassadors to discuss the Jan. 19 meeting. They didn’t offer a specific reason, and it was seen by some at the UN as a snub. Washington has been reluctant to participate in the talks, saying it doesn’t want the meeting to be politicized.
“There are a lot of different groups with a lot of different agendas, each trying to advance their own,” the State Department official said. “The challenge is to get enough moving in the same direction so they bring everybody else along with them.”
A November agreement between Washington and the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council requires regional caucuses to select an Iraqi national assembly by the end of May. Under the agreement, the assembly will pick a transitional government by June 30.
Sistani, who has a large following among mainstream Shiites, has said that direct elections would be more democratic. A popular ballot would favor the Shiite majority — who make up 60% of Iraq’s population — over rival Shiite sects and the Sunni Muslim minority that ruled the country under Saddam Hussein.
US Opposed to Call for Direct Democratic Elections
US officials in Iraq have insisted that there is not enough time to register eligible voters. Sistani has countered that Iraqi citizens could use food ration cards as voter IDs.
The occupation authority, led by US civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III, has had trouble persuading Sistani that its transfer process will be transparent and fair. Sistani, who said there had to be “another solution that is honest to the Iraqi people’s demands,” has refused to meet with coalition representatives, communicating through letters, statements and intermediaries.
The UN’s special representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello, began a dialogue with Sistani before he was killed in a bombing of the UN’s headquarters in Baghdad in August. UN diplomats have maintained contact with the cleric and his associates.
Sistani’s statement seemed to correspond with a December 29 letter to Annan from Abdelaziz Hakim, a Shiite who served as president of the Governing Council that month. Hakim asked for UN experts to come to Iraq to help guide the political transition, an apparent appeal to solve the stalemate between Sistani and the council. Hakim’s political group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, had conveyed an earlier appeal from Sistani for the UN to decide whether elections could be held by June 30.
Annan said in a news conference last month that he agreed with the Coalition Provisional Authority that direct elections were not feasible by June but would be later. He aimed to assure Sistani that the Shiite majority would not be disregarded.
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