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Iraq leader: Direct vote could delay handover

Council president upbeat about U.N. return to his country

Iraqi Governing Council President Adnan Pachachi said he believes the caucus-style elections are a more realistic goal.
Iraqi Governing Council President Adnan Pachachi said he believes the caucus-style elections are a more realistic goal.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The Iraqi Governing Council president warned Thursday that the road to Iraqi sovereignty could be delayed by trying to have direct elections for a transitional national assembly.

A politically powerful Shiite cleric has called for a direct vote before the political handover of the country to Iraqis by June 30. The United States favors that a transitional assembly be selected through regional caucuses.

Demonstrators rallied Thursday in the southern Iraqi city of Basra and other places in support of Sistani's call. (Full story)

Adnan Pachachi, this month's president of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, said he backs direct elections in principle but indicated the caucus-elected assembly, or some variation of this plan, would be more realistic in view of the June deadline.

"We believe that any postponement of the date of sovereignty for the Iraqi people beyond June 30 will not be acceptable to the people of this country," Pachachi said.

Responding to questions at a news briefing in Baghdad, Pachachi said he hopes the United Nations can help with the mechanics of the political transition, such as helping develop the election process and procedures for a census and providing aid in producing a constitution.

"We hope there will be good results from these talks," said Pachachi, who will lead a delegation to join Secretary-General Kofi Annan in meetings Monday with Coalition Provisional Authority representatives and the U.N. Security Council.

"The majority, if not all the members of the Governing Council, welcome the United Nations' involvement," Pachachi said. "This has been our position from the beginning."

He said the Governing Council wants to know what the United Nations can do immediately and what its role could be after the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq.

He also expressed confidence that next week's meetings in New York will help bring about the return of the United Nations to Iraq.

The world body withdrew its international staff from the country in the wake of a deadly bombing last summer at its Baghdad headquarters.

Compromise in the works?

For a direct vote to occur in Iraq, election rolls, laws and procedures would have to be developed -- a huge, painstaking job that can't be done in a few months, Pachachi said.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the power Shiite cleric, favors direct elections and has publicly discussed his opposition to the caucus plan. In response, the coalition has been trying to adjust its original plan to reflect the cleric's concerns.

Coalition officials said a countrywide direct election would be impossible before this summer's political handover for logistical reasons. Pachachi noted that Annan also indicated direct elections would not be feasible within the time period.

"The best way to elect legislative bodies is through direct and general elections if there is enough time to conduct these elections," Pachachi said, adding that caucuses would be better than any postponement of the political transfer.

Governing Council members are in touch with Sistani, Pachachi said, noting that the ayatollah said the proposed method is not "sufficient" and "there is room for improvement" for more transparency.

Pachachi seemed confident that there can be an agreement with the ayatollah. He said the Shiite leader favors the involvement of the United Nations in the process.

"He would prefer elections and perhaps is not fully convinced yet that elections are not possible now," Pachachi said.

A Bush administration official said the United States is working on a "hybrid plan" in which direct elections would be held in Baghdad and surrounding towns, an area the Shiites dominate, while caucuses would be conducted elsewhere in the country.

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

The official said Sistani is worried that a caucus would result in deals being made that would cut the Shiites -- who represent the majority of people in the country -- out of the political transition.

Shiites make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population. They were oppressed under the regime of Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni Muslim.

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