BAGHDAD - Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's highest-ranking Shiite cleric, wants the United Nations to rule if early elections can take place in the country, in a new embarrassment to the US occupation authorities.
Washington, which has decreed a lengthy delay before proper elections are held in 2005, can ill-afford to snub the religious leader of Iraq's majority community.
"Ayatollah Sistani maintains his call for elections in Iraq unless a neutral UN committee, appointed by Secretary General Kofi Annan, visits Iraq and reaches the conclusion that in the current circumstances it is technically and politically impossible to hold general elections," said interim Governing Council member Muwaffak al-Rubaie.
He met the Shiite leader, who along with three other ayatollahs make up the Shiites' supreme religious authority, at his power base in the holy city of Najaf on Thursday.
In a new embarrassment to the US occupation authorities Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shiite authority, will drop a call for an early election in Iraq only if the United Nations declares a vote impossible. (AFP/Ahmad Al-Rubaye)
The Governing Council signed a November 15 agreement with the US-led coalition to transfer sovereignty to a transitional national assembly by May 31 next year.
General elections would not take place until March 2005, a date Sistani has rejected as far too late.
The deal gave no role at all to the United Nations, but stipulates that the transitional assembly will be made up of notables elected by a 15-member committee. Five of the committee would be appointed by the Governing Council, the rest by provincial assemblies.
Several Shiite figures demanded the world body be brought into the process. Governing Council member Mohammad Bahr al-Olum urged that the written agreement give the transitional government the right to call on the assistance of the United Nations or a country of its choice.
The current chairman of the council, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, also a Shiite, pointed out that the UN's exclusion was a problem.
Sistani, who has repeatedly called for general elections to the first assembly in the new Iraq, rejected a compromise offered by the Governing Council.
"We did not reach an agreement on this question and discussions are continuing between the Governing Council and the Marjaiya" (Shiite leadership), Rubaie told AFP.
He met Sistani for three hours along with Ahmed Chalabi, another Governing Council member who is also a Shiite, but the ayatollah threw out their proposal for a referendum, Rubaie added.
"We put forward a compromise proposal: the appointment of a committee of 100-150 people from all political currents in Iraq, including those not represented on the council."
The names would then be put to a national referendum which Rubaie said would be "easier to organize than general elections" that require constituencies to be drawn up, a list of candidates and an electoral campaign.
The interim council's 25 members are clearly divided over the election issue.
The debate opposes those whose prime objective is the return of sovereignty and an end to occupation to those who stress that the Iraqi people must first be consulted to give legitimacy to any new leaders.
Annan ruled out in a report this week any quick return to Iraq for the United Nations, saying it remained too dangerous to put his staff at risk.
But he nevertheless said emergency and humanitarian work could be stepped up despite the grim outlook on security.
Annan pulled all non-Iraqi UN staff out of Baghdad in October following a string of deadly attacks in the city, including a suicide bombing of the UN headquarters that killed Annan's top envoy to Iraq and 21 other people.
The secretary general also appointed Ross Mountain, a veteran humanitarian official, as interim envoy to Baghdad to replace Sergio Vieira de Mello, killed in the August 19 bombing.
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