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Bremer: US to Stick to July Deadline for Transfer of Iraq Sovereignty - 2004-01-16

The top American administrator for Iraq says the United States will stick with a plan for returning sovereignty to the Iraqi people by July 1, despite opposition from Iraq's top Shiite cleric. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani opposes the plan because it does not include direct elections for what will be Iraq's first sovereign government of the post-Saddam Hussein era. The Bush administration is now hoping to enlist the help of the United Nations to win the support of Iraq's majority Shiite population.

Ambassador Paul Bremer was called back to Washington while the Bush administration again reviews its plan for the transfer of power to a sovereign Iraqi government, set to happen by July 1.

But standing in the way is opposition from Iraq's top Shiite leader, Ali al-Sistani, who is demanding direct elections rather than regional caucuses, an indirect form of voting favored by the Bush administration and the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council. At this point, U.S. officials say Iraq is not prepared for direct elections since decades of rule by Saddam Hussein have left the country with no accurate census or voter registrations lists.

After a meeting with President Bush and top officials at the White House Friday, Ambassador Bremer told reporters much still remains to be worked out in order to meet the July 1 deadline.

"We need to try to find a way to go forward in a transparent and representative fashion," he said. "We have doubts, as does the secretary-general, that elections can in fact be called in the timeframe of the return of Iraqi sovereignty on June 30."

He and members of the Iraqi Governing Council head to New York Monday for a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, hoping to enlist the United Nations, which opposed the war in Iraq, in working out the details for what will be the country's first elections of the post-Saddam era.

"The U.N. has a lot of expertise in organizing elections, electoral commissions, electoral laws, has a great deal of expertise it can bring to bear in the process of writing a constitution. All of these things I'm sure are going to be discussed during the course of the day Monday," he said.

Adnan Pachachi is chairman of the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council. "We all believe that the best way to elect legislative bodies is through direct and general elections if we can be sure there is enough time to conduct these elections, and they should be well prepared for, so that the elections would really reflect truly the desires of the Iraqi people," he said.

As part of the overall effort to reach out to the international community, U.S. officials are also suggesting they may be ready to drop their opposition to allowing countries which opposed the war, including France, Russia and Germany, to begin bidding on billions of dollars worth of U.S. financed reconstruction projects.

France in particular now seems ready to improve relations with the United States that have remained chilled for the past year.