US election plan in Iraq founders

As a caucus-based scheme fades away, Iraqis and the US are discussing at least three alternative ways to hand over power.

An American plan to select a transitional Iraqi assembly through a series of regional caucuses has been effectively abandoned by Iraq's interim Governing Council.

But with nationwide elections looking unlikely before the US-led coalition hands over sovereignty on June 30, the council members are unable to agree on an alternative plan.

There's no shortage of options, however. In interviews with council members, three key ideas appear to be taking shape.

The first is to expand the Governing Council from 25 to 100 members to make it more representative.

The second plan calls for reducing the council to around 15 members until elections are held.

The third idea is to scrap the council altogether and hold a national conference of up to 2,000 prominent people to choose a new government among themselves, a plan echoing Afghanistan's loya jirga process.

A final decision is expected toward the end of the month. The United Nations is to announce Feb. 21 the conclusions of a recent fact-finding trip to Iraq. The mission assessed the feasibility of holding national elections before the June 30 deadline.

Most council members agree that elections are the preferred method of choosing a new government and legislature but say there is lack of time to organize a credible poll before June 30.

"In the absence of elections, I think expanding the present council is the best solution," says Ghazi Al-Yawar, a Sunni tribal leader who sits on the council.

He says that the existing composition of the Governing Council fails to reflect Iraq's political, religious, and social spectrum.

"In the Sunni community there were many forces kept away.... The Sunnis are definitely underrepresented at the moment. Not in terms of numbers but in quality," Mr. Yawar says.

He recommends increasing the number of members to 100 and says the expanded council should include such high-profile figures as Moqtada al-Sadr, a young firebrand Shiite cleric, as well as representatives of pan-Arab nationalist groups.

"It may seem like a legislative body but it will be more of a crisis management [group] until elections are held," he says.

The original US caucus scheme began to fall apart after Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, declared it was unrepresentative. Shiite members of the council swiftly backed Sistani's call to hold elections before the June 30 hand over of power from the US, despite having previously approved the US caucus plan.

The debate over elections grew increasingly polarized with the Shiite majority siding with Sistani while Sunnis, Kurds, and independents insisted there was insufficient time to hold a credible poll.

After meeting Sistani last week, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy, said that he agreed on the need to hold elections "100 percent," but added that "these elections must be very well prepared for, so that they deliver the results that the Sayyid [Sistani] and the people desire."

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish councilor, says that the UN will conclude that the elections cannot be held before June 30.

"But we don't know what they will say about what to do next," he says.

Muwaffaq Rubaie, a Shiite member of the council who is close to Sistani, says that the ayatollah will agree to the UN's findings only if "the alternative is acceptable and certain criteria are met."

"There must be a definite date for an election. It must be cast in stone," he says. "If the date is set before the US presidential election, that's fine. If it comes afterwards, the date must be guaranteed by a UN Security Council resolution just in case people forget about Iraq and its demand for elections."

Mr. Rubaie says he favors reducing the Governing Council to a core of about 15 members as a temporary solution pending a nationwide poll.

"Give sovereignty to a smaller Governing Council and to the [existing] ministers," he says, predicting that the UN will make a similar judgment.

Mr. Othman, however, argues that the council has failed to live up to expectations and should be abolished on June 30.

"The council has been in existence for the past six or seven months. It has been tested and it failed," he says. "The Iraqi people don't want it. They are not satisfied with our performance."

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