NEW YORK: It has organized successful elections in Cambodia and East Timor, in the Balkans, Central America and Africa. But the United Nations is tiptoeing into the political minefield of Iraq , where war and ethnic and religious divisions are impediments to free, inclusive, credible elections for an Iraqi provisional government that is to begin governing the occupied country by the middle of this year.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has agreed to send a team to access the practicality of holding popular elections amid Iraq's tenuous security conditions. He already admitted there was not enough time to prepare elections before the June 30 deadline for the US- led occupational forces to hand over power to the Iraqis, but Annan bowed to a request by the United States and the interim Iraqi Governing Council to send the team, provided a secure environment is guaranteed.

Annan cannot reject calls to assist a democratic process, a role for which the United Nations has gained credibility around the world. But to support the Iraqi democratic cause puts the organization into a quandary. The United Nations has no presence, no clear mandate, no leading political role and no power in Iraq. The occupational forces hold that power.

When the United Nations organized a referendum and general elections in East Timor that culminated in creating a new state in 2001, it was in charge, and a UN administrator acted like a proconsul to steer the territory toward independence. UN administrators, backed by a peacekeeping force, can also be found years before in post-conflict situations in Cambodia, South Africa, Namibia and many other countries.

The United Nations is playing the same role currently in Liberia and Afghanistan. But the unsettled conflicts there, particularly in Afghanistan, are challenging UN capabilities.

Similar problems were likely to plague it in Iraq. The first problem is how to select the provisional government in a divided society. Both the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the occupation forces, and the 24-member, US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council want the provisional government be chosen, not by an election, but by caucus meetings in Iraq's 18 provinces. Opposing that plan is the powerful Shia majority under the leadership of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He and his followers want a direct general election.

The CPA and the Iraqi council - both of which have agreed to maintain a transfer of sovereignty to the provisional Iraqi administration by June at all costs - asked Annan to mediate and work out alternatives to popular elections if there would not be time for such a vote.

Annan said in Paris on Monday that he would send the UN electoral assessment team because he believed the organization can play a "constructive role" in breaking the impasse between the CPA and the Shias.

Annan said there would be no "single right way" to patch up the differences between direct and indirect elections. "I strongly hold to the idea that the most sustainable way forward would be one that came from the Iraqis themselves," he said. "Consensus amongst all Iraqi constituencies would be the best guarantee of a legitimate and credible transitional governance arrangement for Iraq."

The UN assessment team would be tasked with ascertaining the views of a "broad spectrum of Iraqi society" and find out alternatives if general elections cannot be organized before June, Annan said.

UN ambassadors in the 15-nation Security Council analyzed Annan's stance as "responsible and cautious" in responding to the request to assess the practicality of Iraqi elections.

Those diplomats agreed that time would be needed to organize such important elections. They were speaking out of experience that includes Afghanistan, where general elections in mid-2004 were scheduled to elect a permanent government. But so far, less than 300,000 of the country's 10 million eligible voters have been registered.

UN officials in Afghanistan said it would be "close to impossible" to run elections in June under the current security conditions. Electoral teams that fanned out across the country to register voters have been shot at. In addition to the lack of security, those teams did not know the number of districts in Afghanistan or their boundaries.

In another obstacle, Afghanistan, which now has a new constitution, has yet to write an electoral law to guide the entire democratic process. In Iraq, elections of the provisional administration would be the first step in a planned process. That administration would be called to adopt a series of laws and draft a new constitution. In 2005, there would be two elections, one to adopt the constitution and another to elect a permanent government.

While the United Nations' duties in the near-term in Iraq are murky, it will still have a role in the country down the road. The UN Security Council has given it responsibilities in preparing for the 2005 votes. What remained unclear was what security situation and societal divisions it would still face there.-dpa

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