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Iraqi elections not feasible by June 30, U.N. official says

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A United Nations official said Friday that direct elections were the ideal way to pick a new Iraqi government, but probably weren't feasible by the June 30 deadline for transferring power from the U.S.-led coalition.

U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said too many crucial steps to an election were missing and weren't likely to be in place by the hand-over date.

His remarks, on behalf of a U.N. fact-finding team wrapping up its work this week, essentially called for a compromise between the coalition's proposed caucus system for selecting members of an Iraqi national assembly and demands for direct elections by a powerful Shiite Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.

Brahimi didn't clarify what that compromise might be. American officials have said they aren't willing to delay turning over authority to Iraqis, and Sistani so far has been unwilling to support any process for selecting a government that doesn't include direct elections.

Brahimi said Iraqi leaders and coalition officials were moving toward scrapping the caucus plan, and that its proponents "realize it needs, at the very least, to be improved." However, Brahimi said he was unsure of an alternative model.

"I think we have agreed that the timing should not be a prisoner to any deadlines," Brahimi said. "Elections should be held as early as possible but not earlier than possible."

He said that any government that was in place before full elections should have limited power and provisional status.

Dan Senor, a top American spokesman in Baghdad, said Friday that there would be no public reaction to the U.N. team's visit until U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan announced the group's final findings, expected in a week to 10 days.

The U.S-led coalition and the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council in November set the June 30 turnover in a plan that included a system of local caucuses to select representatives to a national assembly. The caucuses would consist of local leaders and people the Governing Council nominated.

That plan hit a stumbling block when Sistani declared that only direct elections would suffice.

Since then, coalition officials have focused on determining what would be acceptable to Sistani, an Iranian-born cleric whose word is considered law by millions of Iraqi Shiites.

That process continued Friday as the speaker at the main congregational prayers in Najaf, Sistani's headquarters, called for an Islamic government.

Sistani often has communicated his intentions and thoughts through Friday prayers at the Shrine of Ali in Najaf, one of the world's holiest sites for Shiites. But it was unclear whether that was true in this case.

"We hope that ... next year there will be an Islamic form of government," the imam said. "Islam can find the solution by not giving absolute freedom or ending freedom completely. ... In the West some people go to the streets for the New Year celebrations and get naked. This is an animal kind of freedom ... that's why the Islamic countries are safer than Western countries, because they have Islamic principles."

Officials at Sistani's office in Najaf were unavailable for comment. An official in his London office said that while a theocracy was "the wish of every Muslim man," the imam in Najaf wasn't speaking for Sistani.

"Maybe the coalition authority wants a secular government, and the speaker (in Najaf) prefers an Islamic government," said the London spokesman, Murtadha al Kashmiri. He wouldn't say whether Sistani shares that preference.

Outside the shrine in Najaf on Friday, Nomas al Ethari, a retired schoolteacher, said he thought the Sunni Muslims in Iraq, who enjoyed favor under Saddam Hussein's regime, opposed elections because they knew they would lose power to the majority population of Shiites.

"There are some people who are afraid of losing their positions; they do not want the majority to win," he said. But, he said, the Shiites and their religious leaders will do whatever is necessary to be sure they take their rightful place of power in Iraq.

Brahimi said he met with Sistani for more than two hours Thursday and "his eminence confirms always that he is not a politician. He is a religious authority, and he is not committed to any political line on behalf of any political parties."

Brahimi said Iraq's first election should be "reasonably credible," indicating that concessions would have to be made in a country with no recent census, no reliable voter rolls, no clear district boundaries and no electoral law.

The U.N. team's visit was the international group's most visible presence in Iraq since its Baghdad office was bombed last August, prompting it to withdraw most of its staff. More than 20 people died in the attack, including top envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

The U.N. visit came during a week of some of the most devastating attacks of postwar Iraq. More than 100 Iraqis died in two suicide bombings within 24 hours earlier this week, and there were fatal attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi security personnel every day of the visit. The week before the group arrived, two suicide bombers in the north killed more than 100 Iraqis and injured more than 240 in the deadliest bombings so far.

The volatility has raised concerns over civil war, Brahimi said, citing wars in Lebanon and his native Algeria as cautionary tales against a spiral of violence.

"I am a little bit disturbed and a little bit uneasy because there are very serious dangers," he said. "Civil wars happen because people are reckless, people are selfish and because groups think more of themselves than they do of their country."

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(Allam reported from Baghdad. Lasseter reported from Najaf.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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