The Bush administration said Friday it was open to revising its plans for turning over political power to Iraqis but insisted the transfer must be done by its stated July 1 deadline.
With U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) expected to announce on Monday he will send experts to Iraq to seek a formula acceptable to all Iraqi groups, the State Department offered to ease Annan's misgivings about their safety.
"We are prepared to do everything we can to ensure that its people are safe in Iraq and to protect its people in Iraq," State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.
Annan has sent a two-person survey team to Iraq but has not moved to resume a strong U.N. presence in the midst of persistent attacks on U.S. and other peacekeeping troops.
"We are looking forward to an early positive response from the secretary-general and that team so that we can basically investigate all the alternatives," Ereli said.
While the administration holds to the July 1 deadline, the spokesman said, "We have an open mind about how to most effectively facilitate an orderly transfer of sovereignty."
Annan's special adviser, Lakhdar Brahimi, conferred Thursday at the White House with Secretary of State Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials.
Then, on Friday, Powell conferred by telephone with Annan before a scheduled trip to the Georgia republic and Russia.
The administration is not insisting that Annan select Brahimi to take over the senior U.N. post in Baghdad, which has remained vacant since senior U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed in a suicide bombing of U.N. headquarters last August.
Still, Brahimi's expertise could help resolve the dilemma facing the administration as it presses to end U.S. political control of occupied Iraq five months before President Bush's bid for re-election while also responding to the demands of Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and other Iraqi groups.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric called Brahimi "a man of unique talent and experience." At the same time, Dujarric said Annan had not offered the assignment to Brahimi.
A U.N. diplomat, insisting on anonymity, said Brahimi "would be the personality to get Sistani aboard."
He referred to Iraq's most powerful of the Shiite Muslim sect, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani (search). The cleric's demand that an interim Iraqi government be chosen by direct elections rather than through a complex caucus system endorsed last November by the Bush administration and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (search) has unsettled plans for a smooth transition.
Intensifying the controversy, Ahmad Chalabi (search), a member of the council, said Friday the U.S. blueprint for forming a government in Iraq was hard to reconcile with democracy and could lead to instability.
Chalabi, who spent most of Saddam's tenure in exile in the United States, said he believes elections could be held before the July 1 deadline. The Bush administration insists that is not feasible.
"Do not seek to find a reason why elections are not possible. Seek to make them possible and they will be possible," said Chalabi, who developed close ties to the Pentagon while in exile. He spoke at the American Enterprise Institute (search).