White House coaxes Iraqi party leaders to form unified slate

Behind scenes, U.S. works to influence Jan. elections

October 26, 2004|By Ashraf Khalil and Paul Richter | Ashraf Khalil and Paul Richter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - While publicly stressing the need for Iraqis to control their own destiny, the Bush administration is working behind the scenes to coax its closest Iraqi allies into a coalition that could dominate elections scheduled for January.

U.S. authorities in Washington and Iraqi politicians say that top White House officials have told leaders of the six major parties that were on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council that it would be in their common interest to present a unified electoral slate.

The U.S. effort to influence the parliamentary elections comes while President Bush daily expresses his desire to bring liberty and democracy to a nation that for decades has known only authoritarian rule.

But the White House move stems from concerns that neighboring Iran is using its money and influence to try to sway the elections in its favor.

One U.S. official in Washington, who declined to be identified, said the administration now believes Iraq needs a "negotiated resolution ... a scaled-back democratic process." Between the two conflicting key goals, "I see the arguments for stability now outweighing the calls for democracy."

The formation of a unified slate would further entrench the U.S.-allied parties, which are mostly led by longtime exiles with dubious popular support and are still viewed with suspicion by many Iraqi citizens.

The six parties are the Iraqi National Accord, led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi; the Iraqi National Congress, led by former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi; two Shiite Muslim religious parties, Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; and two Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

U.S. officials hope that by fighting on a common slate in the January elections, the six parties will dominate at the expense of the dozens of independent parties that are expected to run. They also hope that the two Shiite parties will draw votes that might otherwise go to groups with closer links to Iran, an Islamic republic where Shiites also are the majority.

U.S. authorities disagree on the extent of Iranian efforts to influence the elections, but senior White House officials remain concerned about Muqtada al-Sadr and lesser-known pro-Iranian candidates.

The planned elections, hailed as a major step toward a new Iraq, are for a 275-member assembly that will write a new constitution. Voters will choose parties or alliances, not individuals, and the winners will be awarded seats based on the proportion of the vote they receive.

Most of Allawi's Cabinet members are in one of the six parties, whose loyalists control most Iraqi ministries and, according to critics, have increased their power through the distribution of patronage jobs.

Efforts to reach White House officials for comment were unsuccessful, but other government authorities confirmed the Bush administration initiative.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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