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Iraqis React to UN Election Proposal with Skepticism - 2004-02-24

Iraqi religious and political leaders say they are skeptical about a U.N. plan to have elections late this year or early next year, but the U.S.-led coalition says the coming months are needed to properly prepare for elections.

Political and religious leaders in Iraq appeared to grudgingly accept a plan proposed by the United Nations to hold direct elections by the end of the year, but they want further explanations as to why the poll cannot be held earlier.

The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq is the leading Shi'ite organization in the country. Its spokesman, Hamid al Bayati, said "if the United Nations now is saying that election is not possible, we need to know why they believe it is not possible," he said. "What are the reasons behind that decision in order to convince the Iraqi people about this issue?"

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said Monday that while it will be possible to hold an election this year, a lot of work needs to be done first, and it must begin immediately. Earlier plans had envisioned a poll in Iraq sometime next year, a decision that angered many Iraqis.

The dispute began last month when Iraq's leading Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, demanded direct elections be held before the United States hands over power to Iraqis at the end of June. Tens-of-thousands of his followers protested throughout the country, leading the U.S.-led coalition to call for the United Nations to mediate.

The United States has maintained that there is not enough time to organize an election before the June 30th deadline and a U.N. team agreed.

Officials of the U.S. coalition in Baghdad point out that the U.N. report supports the June 30 transfer of power deadline and that they agree with other recommendations by the world body.

"It also talks about the importance of direct elections as soon as possible," said Dan Senor, the coalition spokesman in Baghdad. "We share that view.

"At the same time, however, we believe that direct elections must be as credible and legitimate as possible in the eyes of the Iraqi people," he continued. "In order to accomplish that in a country with no electoral infrastructure, with no political party laws, no voter rolls, no constituency boundaries, in a country that has not had a census in some 20 years, it will take some time."

Still to be decided is how an interim government will be chosen to take the reins of power from the coalition in June. The United Nations team offered several options for the coalition and Iraqi leaders to choose from.