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UN leader in Iraq was reluctant to go

Brahimi pressured by officials in US

UNITED NATIONS -- Lakhdar Brahimi, the head of the UN electoral team in Iraq, was reluctant to go to Baghdad, but apparently consented after pressure from President Bush and other US officials.

At first, Brahimi resisted, but UN officials said that the pressure on him was enormous and that he finally agreed to lead the team that will determine whether direct elections demanded by Shi'ite leaders are feasible before the proposed transfer of power by the US-led coalition on June 30.

His presence indicates that the team will be negotiating to get a consensus among all the parties for a system to choose a new interim government.

It is the first high-level UN delegation in Baghdad since Secretary General Kofi Annan withdrew foreign staff in October after two bomb attacks on UN offices.

Brahimi, 70, a former Algerian foreign minister who just finished a two-year mission in Afghanistan, has cautioned about direct elections, saying premature polls could do more harm than good in Iraq.

"If you get your priorities wrong, elections are a very divisive process," Brahimi said during a luncheon in Washington on Jan. 27.

"They create tensions. They create competition. And in a country that is not stable enough to take that . . . one has to be certain it will not do more harm than good," he said.

Brahimi, now a senior adviser to Annan, is adamant that he will not stay in Baghdad permanently, replacing Sergio Vieira de Mello, the mission chief who was among the 22 people killed in an Aug. 19 bomb attack in the capital.

"We'd like him to play a leadership role in this," a senior US official said in late January after Brahimi's second summons to the White House.

"Our argument to him is that he's been very, very successful in Afghanistan, which was a very difficult situation. Someone who's got that kind of experience and knowledge can apply it to this situation as well," the official said.

In Afghanistan, Brahimi organized a conference in early 2002 to select a new government, and then planned slowly for elections.

But in Iraq, the most powerful Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, wants a full-scale election ahead of the June 30 transition deadline.

Holding the election then would favor Shi'ites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people.

Many specialists contend that the US plan for complicated caucuses to select a legislature, which then would choose an interim government, will have to be altered.

Before Brahimi's latest post in Afghanistan, he was in charge of peace talks under the ousted Taliban, but resigned in 1999, accusing neighboring countries of talking peace but delivering weapons.

Over the past decade, he has been appointed to a variety of trouble-shooting jobs by both Annan and his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, including chief of the UN mission in Haiti in the mid-'90s.

In 1998, he helped arrange a meeting between Annan and Saddam Hussein, then president of Iraq.

His family lives in Paris.

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