21 January 2004

US set for Iraq election retreat

The US-led coalition in Iraq is on the verge of bowing to Shia Muslim pressure for direct elections before the handover of power on June 30, the Guardian has learned.

According to British officials, the Blair government has been swayed by Shia arguments and the US is also shifting ground.

They believe that Paul Bremer, the US head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) running Iraq, has been persuaded of the need for direct elections, provided it can be shown that they are practicable.

'Iraq could become a reasonably functioning democracy, or else it will eventually fall apart,' said one senior British official. 'Democracy loosens things up.'

The official added: 'Jack [Straw, the foreign secretary] has been telling Colin Powell [the US Secretary of State] that the process is a bit like riding a bike. You've got to keep it moving, even if it wobbles all over the place.'

A shift in plans for elections follows a series of abrupt policy changes made by the coalition over the last few months, mainly forced by events on the ground, and will add to the sense of disarray in the CPA.

Let's hope the next step is not a contract for Diebold to conduct the elections.

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