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Iraq vote at least year away, U.N. says


KIRKUK, Iraq -- A car bombing that killed seven policemen yesterday and injured as many as 52 other people, including several children, came as the United Nations issued a report saying that the earliest possible date for Iraq to hold elections for a new government would be January 2005.

While the United Nations was issuing its report in New York, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was visiting Baghdad to meet with senior U.S. commanders and chief civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III to assess the country's security situation ahead of this summer's transfer of sovereignty.

Bremer, while calling the report "a constructive contribution" toward the transition to Iraqi sovereignty, reaffirmed that the United States would meet its June 30 deadline to transfer power to Iraqis.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. secretary-general's envoy to Iraq, warned that if Iraqis themselves do not agree upon a way to proceed, only increased violence and ethnic strife will follow.

His report followed a weeklong mission earlier this month by a team of U.N. experts who were essentially asked to resolve a dispute between the United States and Iraqi clerics on the best way to restore sovereignty to Iraq. The team said there wasn't enough time for national elections by a June 30 deadline.

Iraqis led by cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani had wanted a direct vote as soon as possible. The preferred U.S. option of holding a series of national caucuses to elect a transitional legislature would be too easy to manipulate to be credible, the team said. Under intense opposition from Iraqis, the United States has since backed away from that idea.

The report said that if preparations began immediately, Iraq would need until May 2004 to create the necessary legal and political framework for elections. It would then need an additional eight months to prepare for the elections -- meaning elections could by held by January 2005.

Brahimi noted the daunting task Iraq faces because it has no viable recent census, only one from 1997 that was widely believed to be manipulated, and Iraqi law is even unclear on what it means to be a citizen. But in a note of optimism, he said there is strong will among Iraqis for healthy political system and that Iraq is "a dynamic place, full of ideas and political arguments."

The report leaves open the question of how to turn over power to Iraqis by that date, however.

The car bombing in Kirkuk yesterday likely was organized by a local terror group possibly seeking links to Al Qaeda, Kirkuk's police chief said.

Police Chief Torhan Abdul Rahman Yousef said he had "good information" that Ansar al-Islam was behind the blast that wrecked a police station in a Kurdish area.

U.S. officials in Baghdad told Rumsfeld that the terrorists' origins remain murky. But among the elements believed to be staging attacks are Ansar al-Islam and former Baathists from Saddam Hussein's deposed regime. Others say al-Qaida might be involved.

"We've seen a real step up on the part of these professional terrorists from al-Qaida and Ansar al-Islam conducting suicide attacks," Bremer said.

Despite increasing numbers of Iraqis involved in security, suicide bombings occur with alarming frequency and accuracy, especially in the north, including attacks this year against a police station in Mosul and two Kurdish political party offices in Irbil.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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