Iraq's leading Shiite Muslim (search) cleric wants Iraqi experts -- and not just those from the United Nations -- to conclude that early elections are not feasible before he will drop his opposition to the U.S. political blueprint for Iraq, an aide said Thursday.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani (search) also is adamant that the U.S.-led occupation must meet a July 1 deadline to hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi government, according to the aide, Mohammed al-Yehia al-Mawsawi.

If U.N. and Iraqi experts conclude elections could not be held before July 1, al-Sistani wants them to come up with other ways to make the transitional legislature as representative of the Iraqi people as possible, al-Mawsawi said.

The coalition plan calls for the legislature to be chosen in 18 regional caucuses rather than by direct election as al-Sistani has demanded. The legislature will name the new Iraqi government.

Al-Mawsawi made his remarks during a lecture to about 200 women covered in black veils and seated in rows of garden chairs at a mosque in this Shiite holy city.

Al-Mawsawi launched a scathing attack on the U.S.-sponsored blueprint, which the Iraqi Governing Council (search) accepted Nov. 15. He said the formula for choosing legislators by caucus would perpetuate "the illegitimacy" of Iraqi institutions.

"His eminence al-Sistani viewed the agreement as extremely dangerous," al-Mawsawi said. "The agreement's main danger is in that it does not confer legitimacy on the transitional period. It takes us from one quagmire of illegitimacy to another."

Al-Mawsawi said that if the basis for new Iraqi institutions are not sound, "then what comes after will also be unsound and the people of Iraq will pay dearly for that."

The Nov. 15 agreement also calls for a "basic law" to be drafted by the Governing Council by the end of next month to serve as an interim constitution until a permanent one is drawn up next year. A general election will be held by the end of 2005.

Also Thursday, a top United Nations adviser who has been suggested as a possible envoy to help with Iraq's political transition met with top U.S. officials in Washington. Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat, is highly regarded for his expertise and credibility, and has been mentioned as a possible candidate to help oversee Iraq's political transition.

Brahimi, the former U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, was named the secretary-general's special adviser on peace and security last week. He met at the White House with Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Robert Blackwill, coordinator for strategic planning for the National Security Council on how to move forward on handing power back to the Iraqis, a Bush administration official said.

U.S. officials in Washington and at the United Nations said the United States has great respect for Brahimi, and would like him to play some role in Iraq if possible.

U.S. officials say the July 1 deadline for the transfer of power to Iraqis will be met, although they have agreed to consider modifications to the caucus formula.

Shiites are believed to comprise about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, and are eager to claim their share of power following decades of repression by Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-dominated regime.

The United States already has dropped an earlier blueprint for restoring Iraqi sovereignty after al-Sistani rejected plans for the new constitution to be drafted by unelected delegates.

Al-Sistani's opposition to the Nov. 15 plan prompted the United States and its allies in the Governing Council to ask the United Nations to send experts to Iraq to determine whether elections can be held before July 1. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said he doesn't think there's enough time for direct elections.

Two U.N. diplomats in New York, speaking on condition of anonymity Thursday, said a four-member United Nations security team was likely to head to Iraqi over the weekend and that, once that team delivers its assessment, Annan could approve sending election experts early next week.

Annan appears to favor sending the election experts, but is deeply concerned about their safety. He withdrew all international staff from Iraq in October following a bombing at U.N. headquarters on Aug. 19 that killed 22 people.

Al-Sistani does not grant media interviews and has refused to meet U.S. or other occupation officials. His views on political issues are relayed through religious edicts posted on his Web site or plastered on walls -- as well as through visitors to his Najaf home.

In his lecture, al-Mawsawi shared glimpses of some of the things that transpire in meetings between al-Sistani and politicians.

He said al-Sistani threatened to announce that talks with the Governing Council had reached a dead end when Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni politician and current council president, tried to convince him to drop his demand for early elections. The move came after Annan wrote that he doubted a ballot could be held by the end of June.

"We did not ask Kofi Annan to issue a fatwa [religious edict] from New York but to send experts to Iraq to assess the situation on the ground," al-Mawsawi quoted the cleric as saying to Pachachi. "If Annan does not want to do that, then we don't need his help."