UNITED NATIONS, Jan. 26 -- The United Nations' top elections official, Carina Perelli, sharply criticized U.S. military forces in Iraq Wednesday for distributing material urging Iraqis to vote in the country's elections Sunday.
Perelli and other U.N. officials are concerned that such U.S. military involvement is compromising efforts to convince the Iraqi public that Iraqis are directing the elections.
Perelli said she and the top U.N. election official in Iraq, Carlos Valenzuela, have been "asking, begging military commanders" to stop the distribution of material promoting the elections. Officials from the U.N.-backed Iraqi Electoral Commission have also asked the United States to stop, she said.
"The U.S. military have been extremely, I would say, overenthusiastic in trying to help out with this election," she told reporters. "And we have been basically saying that they should try to minimize their participation, because this is an Iraqi process."
Informed by a reporter that U.S. soldiers have distributed voting material in recent weeks, Perelli said: "I'm glad that you reported it, because I'm going to be screaming on the phone in two minutes."
A significant voter turnout in Iraq's elections would help bolster the Bush administration's case that the political transition there enjoys widespread public support.
On Wednesday, President Bush urged Iraqis to "defy these terrorists" seeking to intimidate voters and go to the polls.
He predicted that "millions of Iraqi voters will show their bravery, their love of country and their desire to live in freedom" by casting votes.
Asked to respond to Perelli's comments, Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said: "We understand that this is an Iraqi election" and "American soldiers do not have the mission to get the vote out."
But a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Venable, said: "It is my understanding that U.S. soldiers and other coalition forces patrolling in various places there have been handing out, if you will, some elections education material" produced by the Iraqi Electoral Commission.
Perelli's remarks came at a U.N. news briefing on preparations for the elections. "From a technical point of view, these elections are as sound as they can be under the circumstances," she said.
But it is up to Iraqis to "confront their fears and confront their hopes" and decide whether the election "is important enough, is valid enough, is legitimate enough in order to risk their lives to go and vote," she said.
Kieran Prendergast, the U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs, said that the conditions for the elections "are far from ideal," but that "imperfect elections are the right instrument of policy for a democratic transition in Iraq."
Prendergast said that many Iraqis still feel "excluded and alienated" by the country's political transition, and that others question the impartiality of the Iraqi Electoral Commission. Still, he said that the new government will have fresh opportunities after the elections to "co-opt sectors of the population" that oppose the political transition. He cited the upcoming drafting of a new Iraqi constitution, the constitutional referendum in October and another general election in December.
Sunday's elections "shouldn't be seen as the be-all and end-all event," he said. "Fortunately, there will be other opportunities in 2005 to achieve greater inclusion."