UNITED NATIONS—The United States and U.S.-installed Iraqi leaders on Monday pressed United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to launch an urgent review of whether direct elections can be held in Iraq by May as the country's most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric demands.
Annan said he needed more time to consider the request and indicated that he's deeply concerned about whether U.S.-led occupation troops and Iraqi security forces can protect U.N. personnel.
But he also signaled that he might agree to send a U.N. assessment team, saying, "The stability of Iraq is everyone's business."
The request to Annan came as pressure built on the U.S.-led coalition to accede to Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani's call for direct elections of an interim assembly. Tens of thousands of his followers marched through Baghdad on Monday in support of his demand.
Sistani opposes a U.S.-backed plan under which regional caucuses of tribal leaders, intellectuals and others would choose the assembly by May 30. That body would then select a transitional government that would assume power on July 1, taking over from L. Paul Bremer, the head of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.
The White House is anxious to keep that deadline so President Bush can claim success in restoring Iraqi self-rule and begin reducing U.S. troop strength in Iraq as he steps up his re-election campaign.
A failure to accommodate Sistani could prompt him to declare the interim government illegitimate, triggering an uprising by Shiites—60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people—that could be far bloodier than the ongoing insurgency led by minority Sunnis.
Bremer and members of the Iraqi Governing Council, including its head, Adnan Pachachi, met with Annan behind closed doors for more than two hours to discuss their request for an assessment team.
Annan agrees with the Bush administration that there's insufficient time to organized free and credible elections by May 30, and the United States and its Iraqi allies apparently hope that a U.N. assessment team would validate that view.
They see Sistani as being more ready to accept such a finding from the United Nations, with its neutrality and expertise in organizing elections, than from the United States.
The issue has to be resolved by the end of February, when the Governing Council is due to adopt a "fundamental law" legitimizing the transition process.
The pressure on the United States and its Iraqi allies was apparent in the way in which Bremer and the Iraqis urged Annan to send an assessment team.
"They pressed him very hard," said a U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "They were clear if he's not going to make a decision today, it's got to be pretty soon."
But it was unlikely that Annan would make a decision before he hears back from a four-person U.N. team expected to leave by the end of the week to assess security conditions in Iraq. It might be the end of the month before that team reports its findings.
Annan told reporters he needed more time to discuss the technical aspects of a mission to look at the feasibility of elections. He made it clear that he was also worried about security, noting that a bombing at the U.S.-led coalition headquarters' main gate killed at least 20 people on Sunday.
"The issue now is whether the technical, political and security conditions exist for direct elections as early as May this year," he said.
Some experts saw the attack on the eve of the meeting in New York as a warning to Annan to stay out of Iraq.
He withdrew all U.N. staff from Baghdad in October after guerrilla attacks on international relief groups and a bombing in August at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed 19 people, including the head of the mission.
Annan said that while he doesn't believe there's enough time to organize elections, an assessment might make a different determination.
One idea that the team could consider if it goes, he said, is basing voter registration on U.N. humanitarian aid ration cards that every Iraqi was issued during the rule of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Bremer and the Iraqis sought to cast the inconclusive talks in the best light, saying that Annan had listened intently and that they were ready to provide the United Nations with as much security and technical support as possible.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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