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The U.N.'s Dicey Return to Iraq

The U.N. is heading back into the Iraq fray. In early February, a delegation of U.N. experts is expected in Baghdad. They'll try to break the deadlock holding up the planned transfer of sovereignty from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to a new Iraqi transitional government by July 1.

At issue: Whether or not full-fledged democratic elections of the transitional government can and should be held. The Bush Administration thinks it's impossible to pull off direct elections in just a few months and favors indirect voting by caucuses or committees of Iraqis. But the prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric, Ayatollah ali-Sistani, has been insisting that only a directly elected government will be recognized as legitimate. More than 100,000 Shiites took to the streets recently to back him.

SLIPPING DEADLINE? So the pressure is immense on the U.N. diplomats to seek a workable compromise quickly. Diplomats say the delegation will analyze alternatives to both the American and ali-Sistani's proposals that could find broad acceptance. Ideas making the rounds both inside and outside the U.N.: convening larger committees than Washington first proposed to involve more Iraqis, holding local elections that would nominate delegates to larger provincial and national assemblies, expanding the current 25-member Iraqi Governing Council to 125 members, or holding an Afghani-style loya jirga, or conference.

"Increasingly, proposals coming from Washington lack legitimacy [among the Iraqis]. The U.N. could offer proposals that are politically acceptable," says Nancy Soderberg, a former U.N. ambassador and now vice-president in the New York office of International Crisis Group, a think tank.

Neither the Iraqis nor the Americans want the June 30 deadline for transferring sovereignty to slide. But it may have to slip to allow time for dealing with the thorny sectarian and ethnic issues dividing Iraqis. The Kurds in Northern Iraq are still pushing to maintain the economic and political autonomy they have enjoyed since 1991. And the Kurds, Sunni Muslims, and many secular Iraqis would be skeptical of a government heavily influenced by Shiite clergy. Since the Shiites are thought to be around 60% of the population, they would likely dominate an elected government.

"VOLATILE ELECTORATE." Time will also be needed to prepare for whatever kind of election is decided on. At a minimum, that would require registering voters and launching a broad campaign to educate Iraqis about the political process ahead. And all this will take place before the Iraqis have had a chance to hunker down and hammer out an agreed-on constitution -- a step that won't come until 2005, after which another round of elections would be held.

"You've got a very volatile electorate," worries Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the U.N. Development Programme, which will help organize any Iraqi ballot (for a Q&A with Brown, see "'It's Vital That the U.N. Be in Iraq'").

Sounds like Mission Impossible for the U.N. Still, there are a few bright spots. Ali-Sistani has indicated that he would consider any U.N. recommendations -- and he has asked his supporters to quit protesting for now. And the Bush Administration seems willing to bend, too, because it wants so badly to hand over power before the November U.S. election. Indeed, the White House recently invited senior U.N. diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi twice for consultations.

Brahimi, who has just returned from his two-year stint as top U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, won the plaudits of diplomats for getting divided Afghanis to agree to their new constitution. Although he's eager for a rest, Brahimi may yet have a role to play in Baghdad. By Rose Brady in New York

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