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Last Updated: Friday, 16 January, 2004, 09:26 GMT
Politics joins security at top of Iraqi agenda

by Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

With less than six months to go before sovereignty in Iraq is due to be handed to a transitional government, the political path is beginning to look as obstacle-strewn as the security one.

Ayatollah Ali Sistani
Grand Ayatollah Sistani: an inspiration for Iraqi Shias

The US Administrator Paul Bremer has rushed to Washington for urgent talks on the transition plan which now looks increasingly fragile.

There will also be a meeting in New York on 19 January to see if the United Nations can be brought in to help.

The problems will test a quietly confident prediction from a senior British official that the Coalition Authority will "not be knocked off its stride". He said: "This can be done."

The latest political issue is a call by the leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, for direct elections to the assembly which will choose the transitional government.

Under current plans drawn up by the US Administrator Paul Bremer, the assembly will be selected by caucuses or meetings in each of the country's 18 governorates.

Sistani warning

Ayatollah Sistani has said that "if the transitional assembly is formed by a mechanism which doesn't have the necessary legitimacy, it would not be possible for the government to perform a useful function".

Mr Bremer has rejected elections, arguing that they are not practical in such a short timeframe, but he is now said to be softening his plan by trying to ensure that the caucuses are more open and accessible.

The coalition is pinning its hopes on the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. It would like him to use his authority to send a message to Ayatollah Sistani that elections are not possible.

If there is no agreement, the prospect opens up of the transitional government failing to command the support of the country's Shias, who make up 60% of Iraq's people.

And beyond that, if this is handled badly, there could be the risk of Iraq splitting up.

If there is no agreement, the prospect opens up of the transitional government failing to command the support of the country's Shias

The birth pangs of Iraqi sovereignty are proving to be painful.

Ayatollah Sistani, from the seclusion of his stronghold in the holy city of Najaf, has been both a help and hindrance to the occupation.

He told his followers to cooperate with the foreigners, but he has consistently called for far more democracy in the transfer process than Mr Bremer has proposed.

That, of course, would favour his own people given their numbers. In turn his statements have met resistance within the Iraqi Governing Council which seeks to reflect the broader Iraqi population.

The birth pangs of Iraqi sovereignty are proving to be painful

Apart from the Shias, the main groups are the Sunnis and the Kurds. The triple nature of the Iraqi population is the result of the formation of the country by Britain out of three provinces of the Ottoman empire.

Criticism of coalition

Iraq watcher Toby Dodge of Warwick University and the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London said that Mr Bremer should have listened to the Ayatollah earlier.

"Sistani will not change his position. If Bremer is talking about opening up the caucuses, he is fiddling with the edges. Elections to the assembly could be held in a rough and ready way. Political mobilisation behind the process is desperately needed. This is another example of the coalition's incompetence and arrogance," he told News Online.

Those harsh comments should be balanced by some more optimistic ones from a senior British official with detailed experience of Iraq, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

More upbeat assessment

This official has been quite pessimistic in the past but his latest comments were more upbeat despite all the problems.

Iraq is beginning to come together
Senior British official
"The fact is that we now have our political plan to the end of 2005. We're going to do it. We're going to take punishment and there will be some bad days. We're just going to keep going. I pay particular tribute to the Americans for absorbing losses and continuing. I do not see why we should be knocked off what we are trying to do this year," he said.

He spoke of moves in Iraqi civil society to assert itself against the threats posed by the insurgents.

"Iraq is beginning to come together. There is an accumulation of things at a capillary level. It is an indication that little by little many Iraqis are choosing to construct the mosaic pieces of a new country."


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