Global Policy Forum

UN Report Warns Against Early Elections,


By Thalif Deen

New York Times
February 24, 2004

A United Nations fact-finding team has shot down a proposal to hold U.S.-style regional political caucuses to elect a homegrown transitional government in Iraq, leaving open the question of who will take over from the occupying power June 30.

The team, led by U.N. Under-Secretary-General Lakdhar Brahimi, said the caucus-style system proposed by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) now controlling the country, "does not appear to enjoy sufficient support among Iraqis to be a viable option." In a report to the Security Council released Monday, the team, which returned from Baghdad last week, also said, "elections could be held (in Iraq) by the end of 2004 or shortly after" – provided several conditions are met.

These conditions include the creation of a new legal and institutional framework and establishment of an Iraqi Electoral Commission.

"If the work was started immediately and the required political consensus was reached fairly rapidly, it would be possible to hold elections by the end of 2004," the report said. "At least eight months are required to prepare a credible election in Iraq once the legal framework is agreed upon," it added.

The CPA not only envisaged handing over political power to an Iraqi transitional government by Jun. 30, but also proposed holding regional caucuses by that date. These caucuses, according to many political analysts, were susceptible to manipulation to ensure a handpicked pro-U.S. government in Baghdad. The idea of caucuses – familiar to U.S. voters choosing party candidates for presidential elections – was criticized by most Iraqis as a concept totally alien to the Arab world.

Powerful Shia leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani not only rejected the proposal for caucuses but also demanded direct nation-wide elections for a new government in Baghdad by Jun. 30. Brahimi, who met al-Sistani in Iraq last week, seems to have convinced the cleric to agree to a temporary postponement of elections – primarily for logistical reasons.

But the U.N.'s recommendations for delayed elections coincided with a statement Monday by another senior Shia cleric, who warned that any postponement would be a "time bomb that could explode at any minute."

"Without elections, our national institutions will remain shaken, unrecognized and distrusted by the people," Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi al-Modaresi told reporters.

The United States has said that whether or not a new transitional government is ready, the CPA will abdicate political power by Jun. 30.

Many observers have speculated that US President George W. Bush does not want Iraq to be a political liability during his run for a second term, in presidential elections scheduled for November. "Yet, in recent weeks diplomats and even some in the Bush administration have begun to worry that the date reflects more concern for American politics than Iraqi democracy," the New York Times said last week.

The Times also quoted Noah Feldman, a law professor at New York University, who said that "arbitrary deadlines in Middle East diplomacy are bad ideas, especially when they correspond, however coincidentally, to our electoral schedule."

"It's not as if Iraqis don't have television," he added.

The UN report also underscores the prevailing consensus in Iraq on keeping the Jun. 30 handover date. But it has left one key question unanswered: if there is no transitional government by that date, who will take over from the departing CPA?

At a press conference in Baghdad last week, Brahimi was asked his opinion about which group should hold sovereignty between Jun. 30 and whenever elections are held. "I think the only thing I know is that we are talking about something provisional, something that is not going to last very long, something that is not going to have extensive powers," he said.

"But I'm afraid that I haven't come to any conclusions there. On the authority that will receive sovereignty on Jun. 30, discussions are still going on and the consensus is not there," Brahimi said.

Asked about the possibility of a civil war in Iraq after Jun. 30, he said, "I am little bit disturbed and I am a little bit uneasy because there are very, very serious dangers."

"I would like to appeal to every Iraqi in every part of Iraq to be conscious of the fact that civil wars are not started by people through a decision that, you know, 'tomorrow we are going to start a civil war.'"

"Civil wars happen because people are reckless, because people are selfish, because groups think more of themselves than they do of the benefit of their country," he added.

In its report, the UN team says the world body would be willing to help build consensus among Iraqis on the specific powers, structure and composition of a provisional governing body, and could provide advisory services and technical assistance for the electoral process. Ultimately, the Iraqi people must decide on these issues and implement them, the report stresses. "They are more than capable of doing so."

"The United Nations is ready to play a supporting role – in helping to facilitate political consensus, as well as in offering technical advice on elections – if the people of Iraq so request it, the Security Council mandates the organization to play that role, and appropriate arrangements are made to provide security for our own personnel," the report adds.

Carina Perelli, director of the UN Electoral Assistance Division and a member of the team that traveled to Iraq, told reporters Monday the United Nations will respond to the wishes of the Iraqi people.

"We will now wait to hear from the Iraqis and the CPA to see whether they accept the report and our recommendations and what are the future steps," she said.

Please note the Brahimi report is also available online:
The Political Transition in Iraq: Report of the Fact-Finding Mission

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Toward Iraq's Government


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