Iraqi leaders said Tuesday they want to start planning elections immediately, after the United Nations (search) estimated that it would take until next January to organize a nationwide ballot.

In the meantime, U.N. officials must offer a new method for choosing the provisional government due to take power from the U.S.-led coalition on June 30, a prominent Shiite Muslim (search) party said. Shiites led the push for elections before the handover date, but the U.N. report issued Monday said the country couldn't hold elections until at least the end of the year.

"If there is no election ... then who is going to take over sovereignty from the Coalition Authority? The Iraqi people need to know," said Hamed al-Bayati, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which holds a seat in the current, temporary Iraq administration.

But the United Nations believes it's up to the Iraqis to come up with a formula for establishing a provisional government.

U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi (search) wrote in his report that the world body, if asked, would help come up with an alternative to the original American plan to pick a new government using regional caucuses, a formula that Iraq's powerful Shiite clergy rejected as illegitimate and that now most of the 25-member Governing Council opposes.

Brahimi's report ruled out the caucuses plan, saying it was seen as too open to manipulation by the Americans. The United States now wants to expand the council to make it more representative and give it the power to rule until elections can be held.

Council members discussed Annan's report Tuesday and will probably make a formal response in a few days, according to Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish Sunni member.

"It is likely that the response will include a request for U.N. help," Othman added. He said there was a "general belief" among council members "that the presence of the United Nations is essential" because it lends legitimacy to deliberations over Iraq's future.

Frustrated by the U.N. ruling on early elections, Shiite leaders are pressing for guarantees that a vote won't be postponed again and say the provisional government must be limited in its powers.

"Now, we have no choice but to accept it whether we like it or not. But we want to reach an agreement with the United Nations on a fixed unchangeable date for elections through a U.N. resolution," said Mouwafak al-Rubaie, a Shiite on the council. "We do not want to enter in a vicious circle where elections is postponed forever and this what had been done by former governments in Iraq."

In Najaf, Sadreddine al-Qobanji, a Supreme Council official, suggested that the Americans were afraid of the outcome of an election.

"Maybe the American administration is afraid that elections would give power to an Islamic current or to an independent current that doesn't serve its interests," he told reporters. "We think that is the reason for hindering elections."

The U.N. report cited security as a key reason an early vote is impossible, with insurgents carrying out a campaign of attacks on U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies.

A roadside bomb exploded Tuesday morning as a U.S. military convoy passed in the central Iraqi city of Baqouba, damaging a Humvee and wounding four soldiers, witnesses said.

The U.S. military also announced that U.S. troops killed a key lieutenant to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a militant with suspected ties to Al Qaeda.

Abu Mohammed Hamza, believed to have been a bombmaker for al-Zarqawi, was killed Thursday in Habaniyah after U.S. troops came under fire while distributing leaflets, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said.

The Governing Council met Tuesday to review the U.N. report, which estimated elections would be possible in January 2005 if the Iraqis set up a legal framework for them by May.

"I believe that we should start the preparations right now on the political and technical levels without waiting for the hand over of power. We will ask officially for the U.N. help in organizing and supervising the elections," said Mahmoud Othman, a Sunni Kurd on the 25-member council.

Adnan Pachachi, another Sunni on the council, said a committee would be formed to start preparations, with U.N. help.

In his report, Brahimi warned of increased violence and ethnic strife unless Iraq's leaders and the U.S.-led coalition get Iraqis' acceptance for a way forward.

Also Tuesday, the military reported that a former Baath Party security chief suspected of financing anti-U.S. activities and working with top fugitive Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri was detained.

Khatan al-Anber was apprehended late Monday night during a raid by 4th Infantry Division forces in Baqouba, Maj. Josslyn Aberle said.