UNITED NATIONS – U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) is likely to approve within days sending election experts to Iraq to study whether the country could have quick, direct elections for a transitional government, U.N. diplomats told The Associated Press Tuesday.
The team — which the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi leaders sought from Annan in a meeting Monday — would head to Iraq soon after the decision is made, the diplomats said on condition of anonymity.
Iraqi leaders and the Coalition Provisional Authority (search) 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 Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani (search), has demanded direct elections to choose a provisional government. But the coalition wants to keep to a handover 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 possible large-scale, permanent return of U.N. staff. That team would work out of the so-called "green zone," a barricaded area in Baghdad (search) that houses the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition, and would focus on upgrading U.N. facilities that are 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 too closely tied 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.
Annan has said he recognizes time is running out. The experts would have to finish their work within weeks because Iraq begins implementing basic laws for the handover and transition by the end of February. Elections would have to be held by the end of May at the latest.
The U.N. Security Council, meeting late Monday with Annan and the Iraqis, unanimously supported the idea of an election team, further putting pressure on him to make a decision.
At a news conference Monday, Annan said his primary concern was guaranteeing the team's safety. The secretary-general ordered all international staff to leave Iraq in October following two bombings at U.N. headquarters -- including one on Aug. 19 that killed top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others.
At the meeting Monday, the coalition and the Iraqis promised to provide security. Attending were the senior U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer; his British deputy, Jeremy Greenstock; and members of the Iraqi Governing Council.
On Tuesday, members of the Governing Council met with President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington to discuss the dispute over transferring power.
"We want refinements that make sense and get the support of all the parties," Powell told a news conference.
One U.N. diplomat said Tuesday the U.N. experts' work would likely involve more than one trip. They could first assess what sort of political process is viable, and then return to make sure Iraqis and the coalition agree on the proposals.
All sides agree the June 30 deadline for a handover of power is not up for debate, the diplomat said.
France's U.N. ambassador, Jean Marc de la Sabliere, said Monday he thought Annan's concerns about the team's safety would be allayed.
"I think these conditions will be met," he said. "It is important for everyone to have by the 30th of June a provisional government as legitimate as possible."