In its struggle to transfer political sovereignty back to Iraq last year, the Bush administration made some tough decisions about the makeup of the political system and how Iraqi...

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WASHINGTON — In its struggle to transfer political sovereignty back to Iraq last year, the Bush administration made some tough decisions about the makeup of the political system and how Iraqi elections could occur quickly and fairly.

But now a little-noticed decision on election procedures has come back to haunt administration officials, just weeks before the vote is to occur, administration and U.N. officials say.

The fundamental decision set up one nationwide vote for a new national assembly, rather than elections by districts and provinces. With a violent insurgency spreading through the Sunni Arab areas of the country, it now looks as if fewer Sunnis will vote, distorting the balance of the legislature and casting doubt on whether the election will be perceived as legitimate.

According to officials planning the election, the decision was driven by the conditions of an unstable Iraq and the pressure to speed the country to a vote by the end of January, as demanded by many Iraqis. To make that deadline, it was believed, there was no time to conduct a census or go through the politically divisive chore of drawing district lines.

A national constituency also made it easier to meet the demands of the former exiles installed in power in Baghdad to let millions of Iraqis living outside the country vote, and the demands of others to ensure that 25 percent of the legislators were women. The experts reasoned that it would be much easier to find women for slates running nationwide than for each of many smaller districts.

“We looked at a lot of alternatives and presented them to the Iraqis and everyone else,” said an official involved in the decision-making process. “Basically, a nationwide constituency solved a lot of problems and made our lives a lot easier.”

But now, with the violent insurgency and more than 7,000 candidates, many in alliances with other candidates, running for 275 seats nationwide, the disadvantages of the system are becoming all too apparent, according to U.S., Iraqi and U.N. officials.

Postponement impossible

For one thing, these officials say, there is no possibility of postponing the election in those districts gripped by the insurgency. For another, the expected low turnout in perhaps a fifth of the country, where the Sunni minority lives, will presumably lessen the chances of candidates who are popular there.

This problem is discouraging Sunnis from running or campaigning, and a failure of these candidates to win proportionate to their share of Iraq’s population could easily reinforce the Sunnis’ alienation from the Shiite majority.

“The Iraqi elections, rather than turning out to be a promising turning point, have the great potential for deepening the conflict,” Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser of the first President Bush and an increasingly vocal critic of the war, said in a recent speech.

The problem of underrepresentation of Sunnis in the national assembly, which will appoint a central government and draft a permanent constitution, has already stirred talk among Americans, Iraqis and U.N. officials of making adjustments after the voting.

Among the ideas being discussed are simply adding seats to the 275-member legislature, or guaranteeing that the future government or constitution-writing committees have a fixed percentage of Sunni representatives. Most have been dismissed out of hand by the Shiite majority.

The decision to set up the election this way was made by L. Paul Bremer late in his tenure as the U.S. administrator in Iraq. His aides say the decision was urged on him by U.N. experts who argued that there was no other way to ensure elections quickly. Bremer’s decision was discussed in Washington, D.C., but it is not clear whether it was approved at the White House.

“It was well-intentioned, but it was a mistake,” said Larry Diamond, a former adviser who is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “It’s clear now that one of the major concerns motivating the Sunni boycott is their fear that they’ll wind up severely underrepresented under this system.”

Another former adviser to Bremer, Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argues further that the system favors the dominant Shiite parties with national organizations over local candidates known only in their areas.

Other former aides to Bremer say there was never any intention to cement Shiite control over Iraq. They say that while they would have preferred electing the new legislators from smaller districts, the practical problems were overwhelming. Some also say that while they were focusing on the transition, they deferred to the United Nations on election mechanics.

“Ambassador Bremer was open to hearing a number of arguments from various elections experts,” said Dan Senor, spokesman for the U.S. occupation last year. “The United Nations experts told us unequivocally that elections could not be held by the end of January based on any other system.”

U.N. assessment

Carina Perelli, chief of the U.N. electoral-assistance mission in Iraq, said she reached her conclusion based on an assessment of the practical problems and after consulting with Iraqis.

“In the time frame we had, and given the elements that we had, it was the best possible choice we could have made,” she said in an interview. “As long as Iraqis were insisting on an election by Jan. 30, we chose the best way to have a minimum disenfranchisement of voters and candidates.”

Bremer declined to comment for this article, but several U.S. officials said that in recalling the deference shown to Perelli and her U.N. team, they were not trying to blame her for a bad decision. Rather, they said, at the time all agreed it was the right decision and the fairest way of conducting the election.

Several officials noted, for instance, that under the system to be used later this month, any candidate who receives one-275th of the national vote will get a seat in the assembly, and that candidates popular in their communities should have no trouble amassing that kind of a vote — about 36,000 if 10 million people vote — even in spite of security problems.

Most former occupation officials interviewed said there was a consensus around Bremer that drawing up district lines in the heat of the occupation would have itself divided Iraqis.

“We were always running into the fairness question,” a Baghdad official said. “We knew the environment was one of conflict. Why make plans for an election that by themselves create even more opportunities for friction?”