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Chalabi joins call for direct elections in Iraq

Governing council member: Iraqis link elections, democracy

From Dana Bash and Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

President Bush met Tuesday with Iraqi envoys (from left) Hoshyar Zebari, Adnan Pachachi, Ahmed Chalabi and Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim.
President Bush met Tuesday with Iraqi envoys (from left) Hoshyar Zebari, Adnan Pachachi, Ahmed Chalabi and Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim.

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Ahmed Chalabi

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A leading member of the Iraqi Governing Council called Friday for nationwide direct elections in Iraq, echoing a growing number of voices in the country seeking elections before the United States hands over sovereignty July 1.

"The view that we hold in Iraq now is this -- that democracy is associated with elections," said Ahmed Chalabi, who was the first to hold the council's rotating presidency. "I believe that elections are possible."

Chalabi's comments at the American Enterprise Institute mark a sharp departure from previous views voiced by the council. It joined with the United States in November in announcing a plan for caucuses to choose the transitional national assembly by the end of May. That assembly would pick a transitional sovereign government, which would take power July 1.

But Shiite critics of the plan, particularly Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, want direct elections for the transitional legislature. Thousands of Shiites have marched to demand direct elections, putting pressure on the United States to find a compromise.

The United States maintains that it is too difficult to organize direct elections before the July 1 deadline, but has asked the United Nations to gauge the possibility of direct elections within the timetable.

Chalabi said, "Do not seek to find a reason why elections are not possible. Seek to make them possible, and they will be possible."

Pachachi: Give sovereignty to expanded IGC

The United States has asked the United Nations -- if it determines that elections are not possible -- "to advise on alternative methods for selecting members of a transitional national assembly within that timetable," State Department deputy spokesman J. Adam Ereli said Friday.

"We continue to look for electoral mechanisms that adhere to the November 15th agreement, and that most effectively facilitate an orderly transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people and pave the way for lasting democracy in Iraq," Ereli said.

Officials have said one option under discussion is to expand its caucus plan to allow for more participation by Iraqis. Another idea being considered is to have caucuses in some parts of Iraq while holding direct elections in others.

Current governing council President Adnan Pachachi has also asked the United States to consider handing sovereignty over to an expanded council July 1, while the country prepares for direct elections.

"Many people in Iraq, that segment of Iraqi opinion, believes that there should be a determined effort to see whether in fact that elections are feasible," Pachachi said.

President Bush met Thursday evening with a top U.N. official as part of the effort to convince the world body to return to Iraq to help with the transition plans.

Lakhdar Brahimi, a senior U.N. official recently named Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special adviser on Iraq, also met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

U.S. officials believe the United Nations can help convince al-Sistani that their plan will not diminish the power of the majority Shiites, as he fears.

Iraqi Civil Administrator L. Paul Bremer and Pachachi began to press Annan to send an assessment team to Iraq during a meeting Monday in New York.

A U.N. military advisor and a security coordinator arrived in Baghdad to meet with Coalition Provisional Authority and coalition forces about security issues, a U.N. spokesman in New York said. A separate field security assessment would be needed should the agency decide to send an election team.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that the United States is looking for a "quick response" from the United Nations on its request for the assessment team.

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