- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

BAGHDAD — A delegation from the United Nations met with Iraqi leaders yesterday to discuss the chances of holding early elections as Prince Charles made a surprise visit and Japan expanded its first military deployment to a combat zone since World War II.

Insurgents, meanwhile, attacked separate U.S. Army convoys with explosives, killing one soldier and wounding three, witnesses said. The soldier was killed when a roadside bomb exploded near Mahmudiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad, a military spokesman said. No other details were available.

The prince, wearing desert camouflage and a black beret, visited British troops, the first member of the royal family to go to Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s ouster.

At a former Saddam palace in the city of Basra, the prince mingled with about 200 soldiers, shaking hands, sipping tea and praising them for their role in keeping security in southern Iraq.

“This part of the world doesn’t have much chance unless their armed force can learn a lot from your experience … not only in the military but in the hearts and minds,” the prince said, according to the Press Association, a British news agency.

Security was tight for his 5-hour stay. His staff did not allow journalists to report about the visit until after he had left for Iran — the first member of the British royal family to visit the Islamic Republic in 33 years.

In southeastern Iraq, a heavily armored convoy of Japanese soldiers arrived as part of Tokyo’s first military deployment in a hostile region since 1945.

The ground troops, mostly engineers, lead a deployment that eventually will reach about 800 soldiers in a humanitarian mission to improve water supplies and other infrastructure projects around Samawah. An additional 200 soldiers will remain in Kuwait.

The U.N. team, led by veteran diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, sat down with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to start determining whether legislative elections could be held by June 30, when the Americans plan to transfer sovereignty to Iraqis.

The U.S. plan is to choose legislators in regional caucuses — a scheme opposed by the country’s most powerful Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. If early elections are not deemed feasible, the U.N. team will offer alternatives to the American plan.

After keeping the United Nations at arms length in Iraq, the Bush administration asked last month for world body’s help to resolve the dispute with the ayatollah and find a way to constitute a new Iraqi government by July 1.

U.N. and Iraqi officials said little about the substance of the first day of talks. Mr. Brahimi, a special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said after the meeting that the United Nations would “do everything possible” to help the Iraqi people “regain independence and sovereignty.”

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