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Cloud on America’s Iraq poll timetable

Baghdad, Feb. 13 (Reuters): A UN official said today elections could not be held in Iraq before US-led authorities hand power to an Iraqi government by the end of June.

The UN is trying to mediate in a dispute between Iraq’s majority Shias, who want elections before the transfer, and Washington which says there is not enough time to organise them.

“It’s not a question of delaying (the handover). It’s finding a new timetable,” Ahmad Fawzi told BBC radio.

“Elections will take place when the country is ready and that will be after the handover of power.”

Fawzi, a spokesman for UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, was speaking a day after Brahimi held talks with top Iraqi Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has spearheaded calls for elections before the June 30 handover.

The Shias, who were oppressed for years by ousted leader Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, make up 60 per cent of Iraq’s population and would likely dominate in an election.

Brahimi, due in Kuwait tomorrow, said most Iraqis he met wanted early polls but that polls must be well prepared. “I think we have agreed that the timing should not be a prisoner to any deadlines,” Brahimi said after meeting Iraq’s US-appointed governing council. “Elections should be held as early as possible but not earlier than possible.”

Brahimi said a proposal for a timeline would be submitted to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. Annan is expected to give his opinion on how to proceed on February 21. The US had proposed that regional caucuses pick a transitional government for Iraq, which would rule until 2005.

Sistani has refused to meet anyone from the US-led administration but met Brahimi yesterday in the holy city of Najaf. Brahimi said the talks were good, but gave no indication whether Sistani would support delaying polls beyond June 30.

Neither did Shia cleric Abd al Mahdi al-Karbalai, who is close to Sistani. But speaking to Reuters after Friday prayers in Kerbala, he said the fact a UN team was sent to Iraq was a victory for the religious leaders and the Iraqi people. “The mechanism which the religious leaders propose is not its own private ambition, but that of the Iraqi people,” he said.

Security is one factor. Two suicide bombs killed at least 100 Iraqis this week, mostly civilians, and insurgents regularly attack US soldiers or anyone they see as cooperating with them.

The US military said today an American military policeman was killed on patrol in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib suburb last night. He was the 375th American soldier to die in combat since the US and its allies invaded Iraq in March.

Security aside, Iraq needs to put electoral registers and laws in place before holding polls. In New York, diplomats said they expected the UN to propose an alternative way to establish a government the Iraqis would see as legitimate, instead of the caucus system or premature elections.

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