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Bush Officials Say Way Can Be Found to Resolve Iraqi Election Dispute - 2004-01-13


The Bush administration says it believes a way can be found to adjust plans for a hand-over of power in Iraq that satisfies concerns of critics, including the powerful Shiite religious leader, the Grand

The Grand Ayatollah's outright rejection of the indirect election plan approved in November by the appointed Iraqi Governing Council has generated news reports of an impasse over the issue of handing over power.

But State Department officials say discussions of the matter will continue and they believe a formula can be found that satisfies his concerns but still delivers the promised transfer of sovereignty by the July 1 deadline.

In a statement Sunday, Ayatollah al-Sistani rejected the U.S. backed plan for caucuses in Iraq's 18 provinces to choose the interim government, demanding direct elections instead.

U.S. officials say there is not enough time for the census, voter-registration procedures, and the enactment of electoral laws, that would produce an internationally acceptable full-scale election by the end of June.

But at a news briefing, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli made clear the United States is willing to be flexible about the way the caucuses are set up, so that it can be responsive to the criticism and yet still allow the critical turnover of power to occur on schedule:

"There can be discussions with different parties in Iraq about the modalities, or the technicalities if you will, of how caucuses are conducted, how indirect elections are conducted, to insure that it meets the needs of both transparency and openness and at the same time an accelerated timetable which is what the Iraqis want," he said. "So there is a method that is both legitimate and transparent and meets the outline of the November 15 agreement that we believe we can arrive at."

A senior diplomat here said U.S. officials are not talking about re-writing the November 15 deal, but rather "fleshing out" its provisions for choosing an interim administration, which he described as "skeletal."

Spokesman Ereli would not elaborate on what accommodations might be made to ease concerns about the plan, but said U.S. officials hope the United Nations might play a part in a compromise.

Ayatollah al-Sistani had suggested in the past that he was willing to let a U.N. team decide whether direct elections were feasible by June, though he did not mention that possibility in his statement Sunday.

The Shiite leader also said that any agreement for U.S.-led military forces to remain in Iraq must be made by directly elected Iraqi officials.

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