If an influential Shiite cleric sticks to his demand for early legislative elections, then the coalition may turn sovereignty over to the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (search), coalition and Iraqi officials said Tuesday.
One top Iraqi official said the cleric would accept a transfer of power to the Governing Council as a way out of the standoff.
Transferring power to the Governing Council was among options under study if the United Nations fails to convince Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani (search) that early elections are not feasible, coalition officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Publicly, coalition officials have insisted the best way to choose the transitional legislature is by 18 regional caucuses. The legislators will select the new government, which will assume sovereignty July 1.
U.S. officials hope to convince al-Sistani that a legislature chosen by caucuses would have greater legitimacy than the Governing Council. The United States and the Governing Council asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday to send a team to Iraq to determine if early elections can be held.
U.N. diplomats said Tuesday that Annan was likely to approve the request within days, and the team would head to Iraq soon. Coalition officials believe the team will agree that early elections are not feasible.
One U.N. diplomat said 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.
Electing the lawmakers by the July 1 deadline, officials insist, is not feasible due to the precarious security situation and lack of voter rolls. But at the same time, no one wants to move the deadline back.
In Washington, President Bush discussed the issue Tuesday with the current president of the Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi, and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite council member who is close to al-Sistani.
Bush said he still hopes the timetable for transferring sovereignty and formally ending the military occupation would hold. Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said the Bush administration was considering "refinements that make sense and get the support of all the parties."
Al-Sistani's support for the political process is essential because of his immense prestige within Iraq's largest community. Shiites are believed to comprise 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people. However, the ayatollah, who hasn't left his house in months, has refused to meet the top U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, and does not grant interviews.
To win the ayatollah's approval, coalition officials say they are studying various options, including broadening participation in the caucuses and handing over sovereignty to the 25-member Governing Council, which Bremer appointed in July. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
A prominent council member who is in regular contact with al-Sistani said that handing power to the Governing Council could be a simple way out of the impasse and would meet with the approval of the 75-year-old cleric.
Mouwafak al-Rabii, a Shiite, told AP that al-Sistani would accept a delay in elections for up to six months if U.N. experts conclude they cannot be held before July 1. The council could function as a government until elections could be held.
"He is ready to accept a delay of the elections for three or six months," al-Rabii said in an interview. "Handing powers to the Governing Council until a general election is held is an acceptable formula to his eminence al-Sistani. He will not object to this."
The council's 25 members -- 13 Shiites, five Sunni Arabs, five Kurds, one Christian and one ethnic Turk -- reflect the ethnic and religious makeup of Iraq. It has won recognition from the United Nations, the Arab League and Organization of the Islamic Conference. Al-Sistani, in what has widely been taken as a sign of his approval, has regularly received council members.
One coalition official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said handing power to the council would be a "very last resort" to meet the July 1 deadline so important to the Bush administration in an election year.
The Governing Council has been widely criticized by Iraqis as lacking legitimacy because its members, many of them active in the opposition to Saddam Hussein, had limited following in Iraq and were appointed by the occupying power.
Al-Sistani, according to al-Rabii, fears that a government appointed by an unelected legislature could stay in power for much longer than its designated 18-month term, especially if elections slated for 2005 to chose delegates to draft a new constitution and a new parliament are not held because of worsening security.