INTERNATIONAL

Polls must be held by year-end, says Sistani

MANAMA, FEB. 26. Signalling that a compromise on holding direct elections was on the cards, Iraq's top Shia spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani today said that the country should go to the polls by the end of 2004.

Ayatollah Sistani's deadline for elections approximates the timetable for polls suggested by the United Nations recently. The U.N., following the visit of its team to Iraq earlier this month had come to the conclusion that polls could be held within eight months. The head of the U.N. delegation, Lakhdar Brahimi, had a detailed meeting with Ayatollah Sistani during his stay. By announcing that he was prepared to accept elections by the year-end, Ayatollah Sistani has shifted from his earlier stance. He had previously demanded that direct elections should be held by June this year. He later said that he was prepared to accept the conduct of the polls by September. In seeking early elections, Ayatollah Sistani had fundamentally altered the U.S. timetable for post war Iraq's political transition. Washington had envisaged positioning an unelected transitional government by June and the conduct of direct elections only by the end of 2005.

The U.S., however, had to reconsider its plans and seek U.N. intervention for a compromise after Ayatollah Sistani called huge protest demonstrations in several parts of Iraq, including the Shia stronghold of Najaf and Baghdad.

In his statement released on Thursday, the Ayatollah has made two key points. First, Iraqi "religious authority" would not accept the deadline for elections pushed beyond the end of 2004. The statement sought, "clear guarantees like a resolution from the U.N. Security Council that elections will be held by that time, to assure the Iraqi people that elections will not be subjected to more procrastination and delays". Second, the power and the authority of the unelected transitional government, that was likely to be in place by June, should be kept to the minimum. He emphasised that the "unelected entity which will take sovereignty on June 30 is considered as an interim administration with clear and limited authority, and prepares the country for free elections without being allowed to take major decisions that could be considered as binding to the elected government".

With differences on a possible time-frame for elections showing signs of narrowing down, the focus of the deliberations on Iraq's political transition was likely to shift to the composition and the modalities for appointing the unelected transitional government.

Ayatollah Sistani is opposed to a U.S. plan for appointing regional committees that would select a transitional assembly. Given this divergence, it is likely that a U.N. team led by Mr. Brahimi will pay a second visit to Iraq within the next few weeks.