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Iraq election agreement may change

New government could be set by direct vote, caucus 'hybrid'

Paul Bremer spoke to CNN's Paula Zahn about the ongoing struggle of rebuilding Iraq.
L. Paul Bremer said the coalition's goal is a representative Iraqi government.

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Paul Bremer

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration is working to create a "hybrid" election plan to keep the transition of government in Iraq on schedule for this summer.

The administration originally offered a caucus-style system that would allow for a transitional National Assembly to assume power by June 30.

But prominent Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani rejected the plan. He favors direct elections, similar to those in the United States.

One administration official told CNN that the United States is working on a "hybrid plan," under which direct elections would be held in Baghdad and surrounding towns, an area dominated by Shiite Muslims, while caucuses would be held in other areas of the country.

Such a compromise, the official said, would placate Shiites while allowing diverse representation from around the country.

In November, the Iraqi Governing Council agreed to the plan for political transition, which included the caucus system.

The plan calls for regional caucuses to pick a national assembly by the end of May. The national assembly would choose a transitional government by the end of June. Sovereignty would be transferred from the coalition to Iraqis in July.

The constitution would be written and democratic elections would be held by the end of 2005. (Full story)

The administration official said that changes to the transition plan were not the result of Sistani's comments over the weekend rejecting the plan, but were undertaken in recent weeks in an attempt to address widespread concerns among Iraqis.

The official said the United States has been reaching out to Sistani for some time through a series of emissaries.

In the past week or so, the United States has tried to send members of the Iraqi Governing Council who have good relations with Sistani to talk to him. In addition, letters between L. Paul Bremer, the coalition's chief civilian authority in Iraq, and Sistani have been exchanged on possible compromises.

The official said Sistani "has shown some flexibility in some areas to seize upon."

Sistani, the official said, is worried that a caucus would result in deals being made that would cut the Shiites out of the political transition.

The official said that Bremer and U.S. officials in Iraq are conveying to Sistani that the Bush administration fully expects Shiites to have a strong role in Iraq's political future but wants "adequate representation" by Iraq's other ethnic groups.

"We feel we are making headway," the official said.

The United States has said a countrywide direct election would be impossible before the June 30 deadline for a political hand-over to Iraqis.

A direct election only in Baghdad would still take a lot of work to arrange, the official said, but it would be a "workable compromise" to appease Sistani, who is influential among the Shiite majority in Iraq.

Speaking separately Tuesday, Bremer did not rule out changes in the current plan, but told CNN that there is not enough time to create an electoral infrastructure before the scheduled handover to an Iraqi government.

He said there's not enough time to create an election law, conduct a proper census, prepare a voter list and conduct a series of other steps that would lead to fair elections.

"These things cannot be done in an appropriate fashion between now and when the Iraqi people want their sovereignty back," he said, pointing out that two direct elections are scheduled for 2005 -- one to select delegates to a constitutional convention and another to elect the government that will take over for the transitional assembly.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that U.S. officials were working to simplify the caucus process for the coming spring in order to make it more transparent and more democratic. Bremer did not directly address the report, but he did not rule out changes.

"We're democrats to our very bones," Bremer said in a taped interview to be broadcast Tuesday night on CNN's "Paula Zahn Now." "We have been practicing democracy for 200 years. Elections are always the best way to select a representative government. The problem we have is time."

Bremer also said the coalition was not concerned with the idea of an Iraq government made up of a Shiite Muslim majority.

"We believe in majority rule and the majority will rule," he said. "The process we put into place will ensure participation by all the various sects and religions in the timeline we agreed on."

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