Iraq's president said in an interview published Thursday that the Jan. 31 date for Iraqi elections is "not sacred" and the vote could be postponed if if a lack of security threatens the fairness of balloting.
President Ghazi al-Yawer's (search) comments, made in an interview with the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, represent a departure from a major policy goal of both the U.S. and Iraqi governments. President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) have insisted the election will proceed as planned despite the growing security crisis.
"All of us are intensively working to bring security and the rule of law to every part of Iraq so there can be elections," al-Yawer, a Sunni Muslim, was quoted as saying. "Yes, it's scheduled for Jan. 31, but that date is not sacred."
He added: "If we see that elections held by that date without security or conditions favoring a fair and comprehensive vote and that that in turn will have a negative impact on our country, then we will not hesitate to change its date."
Al-Yawer's press office confirmed the remarks for The Associated Press. Most real power in the Iraqi government rests with Allawi, and al-Yawer's role is mostly ceremonial. But al-Yawer's views carry considerable weight given his tribal pedigree — his Shamar tribe is one of Iraq's largest. He is also the highest ranking member of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.
A general election by Jan. 31 was called for in a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in June and is a major plank in the U.S. strategy for building democracy in Iraq. Success in establishing a stable government could enable the Americans to reduce their 140,000-strong troop presence next year.
Iraqi voters will choose a 275-seat parliament to draft a permanent constitution for Iraq. Another election will be held under that constitution by Dec. 31, 2005.
But some U.S. officials have suggested that a vote may not be possible in areas hardest hit by the 17-month-old insurgency, particularly the Sunni Arab regions — a prospect that alarms many members of that community.
"An election that lacks credibility will mean that the draft constitution will not have credibility, either," said al-Yawer.
"We will not abandon the rule of law or the need for the participation of all Iraqi cities in the elections," al-Yawer said.
The Iraqi president denied any dispute with Allawi, saying he supported the prime minister. "Sometimes, we have differences in our views, but our joint perspective is as good as it can be," he said.
Al-Yawer also suggested in the interview that a decision to postpone the election should be taken with the participation of the United Nations, which has about 35 experts in Iraq providing technical assistance to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.
Three board members of the Iraqi electoral commission told a news conference Wednesday they were confident that elections would be held in January. They said registering political parties and individuals intending to run will begin Nov. 1 and last for six weeks.
Verification of voter rolls will be carried out over the same period, using a database compiled for a food ration system introduced by Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1990s.