- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

NEW YORK — U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is likely to approve within days the sending of election experts to Iraq to study whether the country could have quick, direct elections for a transitional government, U.N. diplomats said yesterday.

The team — which the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi leaders had sought from Mr. Annan in a meeting Monday — would head to Iraq soon after the decision is made, the diplomats said on the condition of anonymity.

Iraqi leaders and the Coalition Provisional Authority want the U.N. team to assess whether it’s possible to hold elections for a transitional legislature set to take power by June 30.

Iraq’s most prominent Shi’ite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, has demanded direct elections to choose a provisional government. But the coalition wants to adhere to a turnover plan agreed to on Nov. 15 that calls for caucuses to choose a provisional assembly.

The election team is separate from a four-person mission the United Nations plans to send to Baghdad within a week to assess overall security conditions for a potential large-scale, permanent return of U.N. staff.

That team would work out of the so-called “green zone,” a barricaded area in Baghdad that houses the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition, and would focus on upgrading U.N. facilities outside the protected area.

The United Nations has been clear that if it returns, it would not want its headquarters within the green zone, where it could be seen as tied too closely to the coalition.

One U.N. diplomat said approval for an election team could come by Friday. Another agreed, but said the decision might not be announced until a few days after that.

Mr. Annan has said that he recognizes time is running out. The experts would have to finish their work within weeks because Iraq begins implementing basic laws for the turnover and transition by the end of next month. Elections would have to be held by the end of May at the latest.

The U.N. Security Council, meeting late Monday with Mr. Annan and the Iraqis, unanimously supported the idea of an election team, further putting pressure on the secretary-general to make a decision.

Members of the Iraqi Governing Council met with President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in Washington yesterday to discuss the dispute over transferring power.

“We want refinements that make sense and get the support of all the parties,” Mr. Powell said at a news conference.

One U.N. diplomat said yesterday that the election experts’ work is likely to involve more than one trip. They could first assess what sort of political process is viable, and then return to ensure that Iraqis and the coalition agree on the proposals.

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