Iraq Caucus Plans In Doubt

Iraqi women look down from their bomb damaged apartment window in Baghdad after a roadside bomb exploded below, Sunday Jan. 25, 2004. No one was injured in the explosion.
The United States is reconsidering its plan to hold a complex series of caucuses – avoiding direct elections - before handing sovereignty to Iraq in July.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to announce he is sending a team to Iraq to assess if early elections are possible.

Meanwhile, another U.S. helicopter crashed Sunday in Iraq. The Kiowa observation chopper went down in the Tigris River in Mosul. The reason is not known. The two crewmembers are missing.

The Unites States' current plan to hand over sovereignty involves selecting a provisional government through caucuses in Iraq's 18 provinces.

But Bush administration officials are considering either holding partial elections or handing power over to an expanded Iraqi Governing Council, the Washington Post reports.

The current plan for caucuses has faced vehement opposition from one of Iraq's most influential Shiite clerics, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who is demanding direct elections.

Muwafaq al-Rubaei, a Shiite member of the U.S.-installed Governing Council who met with al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf Sunday, told reporters that the ayatollah is sticking to his demand for elections, and believes they can be held before July 1.

"The clerics' opinion is the opinion of the Iraqi people in general. The constitution shall be written by Iraqis elected by Iraqis and not by foreigners," he said. "Sistani's call is still in place to hold elections," he said.

The United States says it would be impossible to hold elections in such a short time given the absence of electoral rolls or a census, and the continuing violence.

But al-Sistani believes direct elections can be held on the basis of ration cards, al-Rubaei said.

Washington hopes that the involvement of the United Nations will help break the deadlock and satisfy Iraq's majority Shiites, who have are demanding their rightful share of power after 35 years of repression under Saddam's Sunni-dominated rule.

Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Associated Press in Davos, Switzerland on Saturday that the Governing Council is committed to the American plan to transfer power on July 1.

But if "refinements" are needed to provide for an election, he said, "I don't think that would be the end of the world."

Sunday's helicopter crash is the fifth this month — three of them due to hostile fire.

U.S. troops arrested nearly 50 people Sunday in raids in the Sunni Triangle after attacks in the volatile region killed six American soldiers.

Most of the arrests occurred in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, where 46 people were detained in a series of raids, the U.S. military said. Three were arrested for alleged anti-coalition activities and the rest for illegal weapons possession.

Soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division also seized 220 hand grenades in a raid on a house in the town of Mukayshifa, located south of Saddam Hussein's hometown Tikrit, according to spokeswoman Maj. Josslyn Aberle.

The raids in the Sunni heartland followed a series of bombings and attacks Saturday in which six soldiers were killed. One of them, from the 4th Infantry Division, died Sunday of wounds suffered when insurgents fired a rocket propelled grenade at his Bradley vehicle in Beiji on Saturday.

Five other U.S. soldiers were killed in two separate bombings Saturday in Khaldiyah and Fallujah, both located in the Euphrates River valley west of the capital. A blast Saturday in Samarra to the north of Baghdad narrowly missed an American convoy but killed four Iraqis and wounded about 40 others, including seven Americans.

A roadside bomb exploded Sunday near a U.S. patrol in Baghdad, but a U.S. soldier, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were no U.S. casualties.

The latest deaths raised to 513 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the United States and its allies launched the Iraq war March 20. Most of the deaths have occurred in the insurgency by Saddam Hussein loyalists since President Bush declared an end to active combat May 1.

The Bush administration launched the war, claiming Saddam had violated U.N. resolutions requiring Iraq to destroy its weapons of mass destruction.

Nine months after the collapse of Saddam's regime, no such weapons have been found. On Sunday, David Kay, the former top U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, said he believes Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction before the U.S.-led invasion. Kay said the challenge for the United States now is to figure out why intelligence indicated that the Iraqi president did have them.

"We led this search to find the truth, not to find the weapons," Kay said on the National Public Radio program "Weekend Edition." "The fact that we found so far the weapons do not exist, we've got to deal with that difference and understand why."