Bush wants UN to sweet-talk Sistani

The US is expected to ask the United Nations to send a team to Iraq to convince a leading cleric to drop his demand for direct elections.

    Ayat Allah Sistani is Iraq's most senior Shia cleric

    Diplomats said t

    he request would be presented on Monday by US occupation administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

    Bremer, Annan and a delegation

    from the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council are due to discuss Iraq's political

    future in a high-stakes meeting in New York.

    The meeting has taken on

    new urgency since the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shia Muslims,

    Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani, demanded direct elections before the

    planned handover of power to Iraqis on 30 June.

    Sistani has rejected the caucus system planned by the Governing

    Council and the US-led coalition, which would lead to the creation of a

    caretaker government but would not allow for elections until

    next year.

    Direct elections

    On Friday, Sistani threatened mass protests, including a general

    strike, if the US-led coalition does not agree to the direct vote.

    "There is generally a perception that early elections tend to

    favour the extremes rather than the moderates, and they also have a

    risk in a polarised society like Iraq of cementing that

    polarisation...

    People are worried that they are going to be cheated out of the

    real fruits of democracy, and the UN has no interest in contributing

    to that"

    UN official

    The 73-year-old cleric, long known as a "moderate" who steered

    clear of politics in the early months of the occupation and drew

    praise from the United States, could now derail the handover plans.

    Annan has already indicated he agrees with the United

    States that there is not enough time to organise credible elections

    before the end of June.

    The diplomats said a fact-finding team could either convince

    Sistani the elections are not feasible, or find a compromise

    that would avoid a showdown between the US-led coalition and the

    widely respected cleric.

    The stakes are high for the United States and for Annan, who

    pulled UN staff out of Baghdad after a series of deadly attacks on

    aid agencies, including a truck bombing that killed his top envoy in

    Iraq and 21 others in August.

    Iraq security

    Annan has indicated he is unwilling to send his personnel back

    into Iraq unless he is satisfied the security situation is

    improved, and the world body will be given a substantive role to

    play.

    UN and US officials declined to comment on a potential UN

    mission, but a senior UN official said early elections were a

    tremendous risk as the nation tries to shift towards democracy

    .

    "There is generally a perception that early elections tend to

    favour the extremes rather than the moderates, and they also have a

    risk in a polarised society like Iraq of cementing that

    polarisation," the official said.

    "People are worried that they are going to be cheated out of the

    real fruits of democracy, and the UN has no interest in contributing

    to that."

    Although no reliable census exists in Iraq, the Shia Muslims

    led by Sistani - who were brutally repressed under Saddam

    Hussein - are believed to be a sizeable majority.

    Shia majority 

    Bremer wants a US-appointed
    government to rule Iraq till 2005

    Sistani has said he wants the United Nations to return to Iraq

    for a first-hand look at whether the elections could be quickly put

    together.

    "We'll have to see if that's one of the things they ask" on

    Monday, the UN

    official said.

    Adnan Pachachi, who will lead the Governing Council delegation

    at Monday's meeting, has said that insisting on elections could mean

    delaying the handover of power for two years, leaving Iraqis

    "extremely disappointed and frustrated."

    However, he suggested there could be changes to the current plan.

    In

    Washington, where Bremer was meeting with US officials to prepare

    for Monday, a White House spokesman said there were talks on how to

    "refine or improve" the handover.

    SOURCE: AFP


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