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U.N. team evaluates question on Iraq elections

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A United Nations delegation arrived in Baghdad on Saturday to assess whether elections are feasible before the U.S.-led coalition cedes authority to a provisional Iraqi government this summer.

The team's findings could settle the impasse between the coalition and the country's leading Shiite cleric, who demands a general election instead of a U.S.-backed caucus plan to decide who rules Iraq after the June 30 transition of authority. However, the current president of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council emphasized Saturday that the U.N. team's decision is not necessarily the final word.

"We are glad the United Nations replied, but we are not bound by the conclusions that they will reach," Mohsin Abdel Hamid said at a news conference in Baghdad. "We always look at it as a matter of finding agreement among ourselves and for the good of Iraq."

The Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani's insistence on elections already has stalled the drafting of a constitution and divided the Governing Council. Last month, Sistani's message sent hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to the streets in massive demonstrations in favor of elections.

Sistani's power was illustrated again Thursday when news of an alleged assassination attempt on the cleric sent shockwaves through the country and raised worries of widespread unrest if the news was confirmed. Conflicting reports emerged that Sistani's entourage came under gunfire in the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf, where he lives. Sistani's spokesmen deny the incident occurred.

The reclusive cleric, whose rulings are considered law by Iraq's Shiite majority, has so far refused to meet with American administrators. His spokesmen, however, have indicated Sistani would be willing to meet with the U.N. team and would respect its findings. The team's itinerary has been kept a secret.

The coalition hopes the U.N. delegation will support its view that Iraq lacks the security and infrastructure to support a presidential vote by the June 30 deadline. Iraq has no reliable census, no voter rolls and no guidelines for political parties. Suicide bombings are another threat as the handover date grows nearer, coalition officials said. Recent blasts have killed dozens of civilians at political party offices, meeting halls and mosques.

Dan Senor, a senior coalition spokesman, said Saturday that the coalition is sticking to the so-called "Nov. 15 agreement," which calls for regional caucuses to decide a provisional government until general elections in 2005. He added that delaying Iraqi sovereignty is not an option, though other "refinements" to the plan are under discussion. Iraqis have criticized the caucus system as confusing and illegitimate.

Senor said the coalition would release no details on the U.N. delegation's work or whereabouts for security reasons. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan agreed to send the team on the condition that the coalition would guarantee its safety.

The United Nations pulled most of its staff out of Iraq after a car bombing at its headquarters in Baghdad last August killed at least 23 people, including top envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.