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US Open to 'Refinements' to Iraq Election Plan, says Powell - 2004-01-20

Secretary of State Colin Powell says the Bush administration is sticking with plans for indirect caucus elections for a provisional government in Iraq by June 30. But he says the United States would accept "refinements" in the caucus plan in an effort to satisfy its Iraqi critics, including the influential Shiite Muslim leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Mr. Powell says the United States remains committed to the timetable of the transition plan approved last November by the Iraqi Governing Council.

But he is making clear that the Bush administration is open to "refinements" on the structure of the nationwide caucuses that are to choose an interim government, and hopeful that the United Nations will help facilitate the process with the Ayatollah al-Sistani and other Iraqi factions.

At a joint press appearance with the current head of the Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi, Mr. Powell said he hopes U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will soon dispatch a team to Iraq to consult with the U.S.-appointed council, the Ayatollah al-Sistani, and others on achieving the planned transfer of power on schedule by the end of June.

"We all remain committed to the 15 November agreement with the desire, and the goal, and the deadline we put before ourselves of having an interim government in place by the 30th of June, but recognizing that that is not the end of the process," he said. "It is really just half-way into the process of full elections for a democratically-elected assembly, and a government that comes from that assembly, and a constitution that will be ratified by the Iraqi people, and that will take us all the way into 2005."

Mr. Powell told reporters earlier he hoped the U.N. team would intercede with the Ayatollah al-Sistani to explain the difficulties of meeting his demand for full-scale elections for the transitional government, while also exploring the "refinements" to the caucus plan that would help convince him and others that the process can be representative of the Iraqi people.

He said the United States is "totally committed" over the long-haul to fulfilling the Iraqi people's dream of a democratic government and intends to help smooth the way to that objective.

Mr. Pachachi, who met President Bush earlier Tuesday, said that while the end of June deadline will preclude the full-scale election process that all parties would find desirable, the admittedly-complex plan for 18 regional caucuses across Iraq can be refined to assure that the transitional authority has the credibility it needs.

"We hope to refine this process," he said. "I agree with you it's a little complicated but I think if it's well-refined, if it's done properly, I think it will really enable the Iraqis to have a legislature that really represents their views and is widely-representative. And that's what the United Nations asked. They said that sovereignty will be restored to Iraq only if there was a representative government, internationally recognized. And that's what we hope will happen."

Bush administration officials have said a full-scale direct election for the transitional government by June would be impossible, given among other things, that lack of an electoral law and a recent census in Iraq to determine voter eligibility.

U.N. officials however say the team expected to be sent to Iraq within a few days by Secretary-General Annan will examine the possibility of a direct vote.

Mr. Annan, who met Monday with Mr. Pachachi and the senior U.S. administrator for Iraq Paul Bremer, said a primary concern is security for the U.N. mission - mindful of the truck bombing last August that killed the top U.N. envoy to Iraq and 21 others and prompted the withdrawal of foreign U.N. personnel.