BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's most prominent Shiite cleric signaled Thursday that he would accept the installation of an unelected government after June 30 if elections are set -- possibly at the end of the year -- and the United Nations guarantees the date.
Although the timetable for the ballot is shorter than suggested by the United States, the statement by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani (search) indicated an agreement was taking shape to end the U.S. occupation on schedule.
Such an agreement would probably involve a weak Iraqi administration assuming sovereignty on June 30 with its primary mission to organize an election in concert with U.N. and U.S. experts.
It is now up to the United Nations, the U.S.-run occupation authority and the Iraqi leadership to decide how to constitute such a government, one not only acceptable to the country's majority Shiites but to the Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen and Christians as well.
The United States has said it would prefer expanding the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council to include more Sunnis and other groups to enhance the body's legitimacy among Iraq's 25 million people.
Al-Sistani had initially demanded elections to choose a transitional legislature, which in turn would appoint a government. The United Nations agreed with the Americans that elections were not feasible before June 30 because of the security situation, the absence of census data and the lack of an election commission and other infrastructure.
In a statement issued Thursday by his office in Najaf, al-Sistani noted the United Nations ruled out an early ballot but said the world organization's opinion that elections may be possible by the end of the year "is of great significance."
"The period in which an unelected government should take control this country must be short and for few months only," al-Sistani said. He insisted on "clear guarantees, such as a Security Council resolution" regarding the date for elections "so that Iraqis will be sure that there is no more postponement and prolonging."
Al-Sistani said "the unelected body" that will take power after June 30 "should be an interim administration of limited and clear mandate."
U.S. officials have expressed doubt that elections can be held this year, given the slow pace of decision-making by the Governing Council. Sunni Arabs on the council are anxious to move slowly, fearing an early ballot would cement control by the majority Shiites.
Last week, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer (search) said the United Nations believed organizing elections could take "somewhere between a year and 15 months," although he added that perhaps the process could be speeded up.
However, a senior coalition official, when asked about al-Sistani's statement, said simply that the ayatollah was responding to a U.N. report and "we are really turning to the U.N." The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
The remark indicated the U.S.-led coalition wants the United Nations to assume a greater role in the transition to Iraqi rule.
Also Thursday, the commander of coalition forces, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, told reporters security conditions in Iraq were "considerably better than what they were 60 days ago" and that the situation was "manageable for whatever government process that needs to take place."
Sanchez said the threat from Saddam supporters had decreased and the "terrorist element" had "begun to take pre-eminence." A senior coalition official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the capture of Saddam on Dec. 13 helped U.S. forces disrupt contacts among insurgent cells.
After toppling Saddam last April, the Americans planned to return sovereignty in 2005 after a permanent constitution was ratified and legislative elections were held. As U.S. casualties rose last November, the Americans moved up the sovereignty date to June 30 after al-Sistani insisted that framers of the constitution be elected -- a process Washington believed would take too long.
The Bush administration -- eager to end the formal occupation ahead of the presidential election in November -- has said the June 30 deadline is firm.
In the latest violence, a bomb exploded Thursday near a police car in Baquoba, killing one policeman and wounding four others.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, rocket-propelled grenades struck the office of a Kurdish party, killing one person, security chief Gen. Sherko Shaker said.
Later Thursday, residents in Fallujah, a center of insurgent activity west of Baghdad, said they heard large explosions, apparently coming from near the American military base there. The U.S. command in Baghdad said it had no such reports.