U.S. May Rethink Election in Iraq

Times Staff Writers

With the United States scrambling to salvage its postwar plans for Iraq, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III flew to Washington on Thursday amid speculation in both capitals that an overhaul of the Iraqi political blueprint could be underway.

Although the White House insisted that Bremer’s visit was routine, senior administration officials said the agenda for his meetings today and possibly through the weekend with President Bush and other top officials was being kept secret.

Bremer made a similar trip shortly before a Nov. 15 agreement with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council was announced, which accelerated the timetable for transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis and detailed the process for forming a transitional government.

This time, Bremer faces sustained opposition to the U.S.-backed plan from the most influential cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose supporters sent tens of thousands of demonstrators into the streets of Basra in southern Iraq on Thursday.

Under the Nov. 15 accord, Washington and the Governing Council agreed on a series of regional caucuses to select members of a new assembly, which would choose a new transitional national government. Sistani and his supporters say that the indirect system is undemocratic and demand direct elections.


U.S. officials say there is no time to prepare for free and fair elections by June 30, when the United States plans to return sovereignty to Iraq. Yet they acknowledge that Sistani is too powerful to ignore.

“We are neither so stupid nor so reckless as to want to make an enemy of Ali Sistani,” a senior U.S. official said.

With time running short, the Bush administration is facing increasing pressure to alter some strongly held positions.

Under discussion this weekend could be Washington’s categorical opposition to direct elections before the hand-over and its insistence on completing by March an agreement on the role of the U.S. military in the country.

Iraqi Governing Council President Adnan Pachachi, who is scheduled to leave Baghdad today for a crucial meeting at the United Nations, acknowledged that major discussions were underway on changing many facets of the plan for choosing a transitional government.

Bremer has talked extensively to Governing Council members about ways to respond to Sistani’s demand, Pachachi said.

Bremer and a Governing Council delegation will discuss the situation in Iraq with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the U.N. Security Council on Monday.

It will be the first formal meeting of the three parties in months. But officials are downplaying the meeting, saying it will be not be a watershed moment in the strained relationship between the U.S. and the U.N.

Pachachi said he and Sistani agreed that they would try to move the process as close to direct elections as possible.

“There is room for improvement, and if we can’t hold elections we agreed to try to reach the best possible ... method. There are many ideas floating around,” he said.

At stake for the U.S. is the success of its project to bring democracy to Iraq. If Sistani is not satisfied with the process, he could discredit the transitional government, creating widespread Shiite opposition that could destabilize the country, exactly the outcome the U.S.-led coalition fears.

On Thursday, a glimpse of the reclusive cleric’s power was on display when tens of thousands of Iraqis in Basra took to the streets voicing their support for Sistani’s unrelenting call for general elections. “Yes, yes to Sistani; no, no to selection!” shouted the demonstrators as they headed to the Al Abilla Mosque.

Overhauling the U.S. plan would be far from easy. The U.S. must balance the interests of the minority Sunnis and Kurds with those of the majority Shiites. While The Shiites were persecuted by former President Saddam Hussein, but they now have considerable influence.

Members of the Governing Council have been shuttling back and forth to the city of Najaf, where Sistani lives, to discuss options with him, making it clear that his input is crucial -- a situation that leaves many Iraqis uncomfortable.

In public, the Bush administration insists that the Nov. 15 agreement represents a consensus among the competing Iraqi groups and says the only question is how best to implement it.

Officials fear that any sign that they would be prepared to abandon that agreement, which was signed by the Governing Council, would sow mistrust of the United States’ willingness to keep its word among the Iraqis who have agreed to the plan.

A reversal also could invite new demands from other ethnic groups.

More thorny than the question of elections is, “How does one give enough to the Shia majority, and not have that be too much for either the Kurds or the Sunnis?” said Richard N. Haass, a former senior administration official who is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The United States must “on the one hand meet the accelerated timetable for the return of sovereignty that the Iraqis have asked for ... and at the same time have a process that is legitimate and representative,” a senior State Department official said. “We think the two are not mutually exclusive.”

The U.S. sees the June date for transfer of sovereignty to Iraq as nonnegotiable, officials said.

“It’s less a problem of our staying power and more a question of how long the welcome mat will be out,” Haass said.

“We simply don’t want to get into a situation where Shia acquiescence of the American presence turns into active resistance. That would be a strategic nightmare.”

U.S. officials cite technical problems with quicker elections. They note that Iraq has not had a census in many years. There are no electoral rolls and no election laws.

U.N. officials agree that there are difficulties. Responding to a query from the previous president of the Governing Council, Abdelaziz Hakim, Annan stated in a recent letter that “we do not have enough time to organize free and just elections for the transitional government. I am very aware of the importance of the [June 30] deadline and this should be preserved.”

Pachachi, who received Annan’s answer last week because he is the current president of the council, shared it with Sistani.

The cleric made it clear he was unconvinced, said several people who attended Pachachi’s meeting with Sistani. His belief is based at least in part on an earlier assessment by Iraqi government officials who concluded that an election could be organized in as little as six months.

“He feels Annan is writing this from New York, it’s just a general statement,” said one participant in the meeting. “He might be more convinced with facts on the ground.”

Abdul Adel Mehdi, who often represents the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq on the Governing Council, and who is in frequent contact with Sistani, said the cleric was waiting to see more evidence that elections could not be held before June 30.

“We have to be sure elections are not possible ... our experts are saying it is possible,” he said.

The Iraqi delegation to the United Nations plans to discuss whether the U.N. would be willing to send a team to do a more detailed assessment.

Underpinning Sistani’s objections to the current plan is a fear that the United States or established political parties may try to manipulate the votes of the caucus members or even buy votes outright, undercutting both the power of the Shiites and the credibility of the transitional government among all Iraqis.

“We have a fear that something, someone, would try to manipulate the whole process, and that is not in the interests of Iraqis, of Muslims and of Shiites,” Mehdi said.

Under the November accord, the Governing Council and the Provincial Councils would appoint a 15-member organizing committee in each province, which would choose participants in a caucus.

Each caucus would then elect representatives to the transitional national assembly. The first popular elections would not be held until early 2005.

There are several proposals, crafted by Governing Council members in consultation with Sistani’s advisors for democratizing the system and safeguarding it.

Pachachi said there could be changes in the selection of the members of the organizing committees, in the nomination of people to the caucuses, and in the selection process for delegates within the caucus.

One idea under discussion would be to stick with the caucus approach -- although with a broadened membership -- but to hold a popular vote on the representatives chosen in each governorate.

If the slate was rejected, then the caucus would have to choose a new group.

Another option would to allow a three-week period of popular consideration of the delegates chosen by the caucus and if there was a movement against any members, then the caucus would have to vote a new slate.

For his part, Pachachi made it clear that he did not support holding quick elections and that he also felt it was a bad idea to push back the deadline for the transfer of sovereignty.

“We have a tough choice, we either scrap the whole thing ... and postpone the whole process until we can agree on some accepted method, which means we may end up keeping the occupation and the coalition in charge for another two years [until] the constitutional process ... [or] we go through the mechanism of selection which we hope we can improve.

“I’ll tell you this, the Iraqi people will be extremely disappointed after being told for weeks and months now that on June 30th there is going to be a sovereign Iraqi government with real powers and it will be the end of the official occupation ... and then suddenly they are told that they have to wait for a couple more years until they have a constitution.”

If Bremer is going to Washington with a proposed solution to the impasse, most high-placed officials could only speculate about what it might be.

The secrecy is intentional: Bremer has been upset that some of his previous communications to Washington about attempts to negotiate with Sistani and other Iraqi leaders were leaked in the U.S. media, sources said.

He prefers to return to Washington for sensitive discussions, they said.

“He’s played this dialogue with Sistani so close to the vest because of the leaks that not a lot of people know what’s going on,” a source said.

Rubin reported from Baghdad and Efron from Washington. Times staff writer Maggie Farley of The Times’ United Nations Bureau contributed to this report.