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U.S. seeking U.N. support, help on Iraq

Council leader warns direct vote could delay sovereignty

Demonstrators rally Thursday in Basra calling for a transitional Iraqi assembly to be chosen by direct elections.
Demonstrators rally Thursday in Basra calling for a transitional Iraqi assembly to be chosen by direct elections.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration is preparing for its first high-level consultations with the United Nations on the political transition in Iraq and wants U.N. support -- and assistance -- for its plan to turn over sovereignty in several months, administration officials told CNN Thursday.

The move comes even as the administration debates "refinements" designed to deal with criticism from Iraqi Shiite leaders about the proposed methods of choosing the country's next government.

The new strategy is to be discussed Friday at the White House in a series of meetings involving U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer and President Bush and his senior national security advisers.

Bremer then heads to New York for meetings Monday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that will include members of the U.S.-backed interim Iraqi Governing Council, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Negroponte, and Jeremy Greenstock, Negroponte's British counterpart.

Administration sources said the goal is to win a strong statement from Annan backing the political transition plan -- and a commitment from Annan to send a U.N. team to Iraq to assist with the effort.

"The issue of the political transition in Iraq is certainly the topic on the agenda," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters. "We have encouraged a U.N. role. We look forward to working with the U.N. in coming months, as that process unfolds."

He said the United States would help "make sure that the U.N. has the kind of security that they need for their circumstances and their kind of operations in Iraq."

The United Nations withdrew its staff from Iraq after an August bombing at its headquarters in Baghdad that killed Annan's special representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 others.

Boucher said the administration believes the United Nations has a "vital role" to play in the transition process.

"They bring a unique expertise, they bring a lot of particular assistance, and ... to some extent an outside viewpoint that bolsters the process in terms of its credibility," he said.

Protests over transition plan

One official said Secretary of State Colin Powell has been talking to Annan almost daily over the last few weeks to bring the United Nations back into Iraq with a strong advisory role on the political transition.

A U.N. endorsement of the transitional plan could help quiet international criticism of the U.S. effort in Iraq.

It also could help the United States deal with opposition from major Iraqi Shiite leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose supporters by the tens of thousands staged a large protest Thursday in Basra and smaller ones in several other cities.

One witness described the Basra demonstration as "anti-coalition." The crowd carried banners reading "Elections now" and "Where is the U.N.?" and some protesters shouted, "No to America."

As it now stands, the U.S.-backed political transition plan calls for regional caucuses in Iraq by the end of May to elect a new Iraqi legislature.

That legislature -- or parliament -- would then choose a new executive administration to take over sovereignty of Iraq by the July 1 deadline set by the Bush administration in its agreement with the interim Iraqi Governing Council.

Sistani has called for direct elections and voiced concerns that the caucus plan is designed to limit Shiite influence.

U.S. officials say direct elections are not feasible, in part because of the sometimes tenuous security situation, but more so because there are no accurate voting rolls and accurate census of the Iraqi population.

U.S. officials also have conceded they worry that Islamic radicals or Baath Party holdovers could fare better than other groups in direct elections because they have long-standing organizations.

Adnan Pachachi, current president of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, warned Thursday that creating procedures for a direct vote would delay the transition to sovereignty. (Full story)

But administration sources said anew they are open to "refinements," and Bremer's conversations at the White House will focus on proposals to expand representation in the caucus system in a way that might address some of the Shiite complaints.

These U.S. sources said that a United Nations role in negotiations with the Shiites "is something that could be helpful if it can be worked out."

To date, the administration has resisted a prominent U.N. role in the political transition, although it has not flatly ruled out such cooperation.

One U.S. official said the new effort is proof the administration values the contributions of the Iraqi Governing Council, some of whose leading members have pressed for a greater U.N. role.

Other developments

• The British Royal Military Police is investigating the March death of Sgt. Steven Roberts over allegations he was sent into action without proper body equipment. Roberts, 33, was killed in action southwest of Basra after being shot in the chest. A Defense Ministry report showed that Roberts was issued special body armor but was ordered to give it back because his regiment didn't have enough. He was given standard armor instead. (Full story)

• Lakhdar Brahimi, previously the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, has been appointed special adviser to Annan, the United Nations said Thursday. Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, completed his two-year assignment to Afghanistan this month. It is expected a large part of his work will involve Iraq, helping to define the U.N. role in the country. He will be based in New York, and his rank will be undersecretary-general. (Full story)

• Iraq made official Thursday its new money, a dinar without the stark image of deposed leader Saddam Hussein. The new currency depicts scenes of Iraqi history, topography, scientific contributions and economic life. (Full story)

CNN's John King, David Ensor, Robin Oakley and Karl Penhaul contributed to this report.

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