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Annan: U.N. will study Iraq elections if coalition guarantees safety

BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday that he would send a delegation to study elections in Iraq if the U.S.-led coalition could guarantee its safety.

But underscoring the difficulty of providing a safety guarantee—for the mission or for eventual elections—six American soldiers were killed in bomb blasts in Khaldiya, about 50 miles west of Baghdad, and in Iskandariyah, south of the capital, on Tuesday.

The U.N. team would assess whether open elections are possible this spring. Many Iraqis have threatened to revolt unless elections are held for a transitional government that's scheduled to take power June 30. American officials in Iraq say the lack of a census, election laws and security would make it impossible to have safe and open elections.

"I have concluded that the United Nations can play a constructive role in helping to break the current impasse," Annan said in Paris. "Therefore, once I am satisfied that the (American-led coalition) will provide adequate security arrangements, I will send a mission to Iraq in response to the requests that I received."

"We have the responsibility to provide for a safe, secure Iraq," said coalition spokesman Dan Senor. "That's not to say it's complete security at all times, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Annan's announcement signaled a possible U.N. return to Iraq after a three-month absence. The United Nations pulled its foreign staff out of Iraq after attacks on aid workers, including an August bombing that killed the top U.N. envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 other people.

The United States initially didn't involve the United Nations in planning for Iraq's transition to self-rule. But after weeks of widespread unrest over the election issue, the Bush administration and members of the interim Iraqi Governing Council requested last week that the United Nations send a team to study whether elections could be held.

The United States announced a plan in November that would hand over power to an interim national assembly chosen by a system of national caucuses, rather than direct elections.

That plan didn't sit well with many Iraqis, most notably Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, the nation's top Shiite Muslim cleric, whose word is considered law by millions in the country.

Sistani has continued to insist on elections. But a spokesman for him said Tuesday that the cleric was taking a wait-and-see attitude about the U.N. mission and had asked those around him to keep quiet until he was ready to make a statement. Last week tens of thousands of Shiites marched through Baghdad, promising widespread revolt if their leader's demands weren't met.

Jassim Mahdi, a street vendor outside Sistani's Baghdad office, said Tuesday that the situation could get beyond Sistani's control if there were no elections. "We should revolt," he said. "We will start the fight with or without him."

Other Shiites said the future rested in Sistani's hands.

"I hope he will not call for jihad, but if he does, we have no choice—we must obey," said Sadiq Ali, a guard for the Iraqi Facility Protection Services.

The town of Khaldiya, where three American soldiers were killed Tuesday, is in a large region of Iraq known as the Sunni Triangle for its majority population of Sunni Muslims, including many loyal to Saddam Hussein. In recent weeks U.S. military commanders have said they're also seeing more influence from radical Islamic fighters, including some from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.

Three Iraqi policemen were killed and one was wounded Tuesday near Ramadi, a town just west of Khaldiya. South of the Iraqi capital, two CNN employees, both Iraqis, were shot to death. A third employee of the news channel was injured in the attack.

Roadside bombings and gunfights are daily occurrences in Iraq.

"The security situation is not prepared to protect an election process for the time being," Interior Minister Nouri Badran said. "It should be postponed until all the security and political requirements are met. (Then) elections can be held in a stable and safe manner."

Also on Tuesday, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, the political party of Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi, said the interim government was looking into allegations that high-powered supporters of Saddam's regime had received millions of barrels of free or cheap oil as bribes to buy their loyalty.

A list of alleged recipients published earlier this week by an independent Baghdad newspaper included the names of foreign businessmen, journalists, Arab ruling families and the U.N. official who oversaw the oil-for-food program. The list reportedly came from a database that was seized after Saddam's regime fell. Entifad Qanbar, a spokesman for Chalabi, said the INC had hundreds of thousands of documents to support the claims, though he provided none at a news conference.

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

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