In agreeing Tuesday to send an election team to Iraq (search), U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) took the first major step to restore his organization's influence in the country.

The prominent U.N. role -- helping resolve a dispute over the best way to transfer power to Iraqis -- marks a significant reversal. Washington drew up its transition plan for Iraq last year without mentioning the United Nations; U.S. officials now see the world body as their best hope for a compromise.

Annan said he would agree to a coalition and Governing Council request, made in a Jan. 19 meeting, that he dispatch the team to see whether a direct vote for a transitional government is possible.

He also suggested that a multinational force could be deployed but ruled out the idea of U.N. peacekeepers in Iraq. Annan withdrew all international staff in October after deadly homicide bombings of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

"I believe what we can anticipate would be a multinational force authorized by the Security Council, which could help and work with Iraqis to stabilize Iraq and make it safer," Annan said at a press conference with President Jacques Chirac (search). "This would be a multinational force, with the support of the Security Council, and not 'blue helmets' per se."

Staking out his independence from the coalition, Annan said he will seek out Iraqi opinions.

"I strongly hold to the idea that the most sustainable way forward would be one that came from Iraqis themselves," the secretary-general said in a statement.

Annan said the team will go to Iraq once the U.S.-led coalition assures its safety. In Baghdad, coalition spokesman Dan Senor welcomed Annan's decision and said the coalition would take "all necessary measures" to provide the U.N. team's security.

The United States hopes U.N. intervention will break a deadlock with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the powerful cleric who wants direct elections for a transitional legislature. The United States says there's not enough time before the legislature takes power June 30 and wants it elected by regional caucuses.

Annan said the team would try to determine what alternatives there are if an election cannot be held.

"I have already made clear that in my view there is no single 'right way,"' he said in Paris.

Al-Sistani's call for direct elections has been backed by tens of thousands of protesters, and the U.S. decision to turn to the United Nations is seen as an acknowledgment of the Shiite cleric's influence. Al-Sistani has said he would back the findings of the U.N. team, provided it offers a good alternative if it rules out direct elections now.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Saturday he had been in touch with Annan almost every day recently and also met with Annan's special adviser, Lakhdar Brahimi.

For now, Annan said he has ruled out sending in a U.N. special envoy to succeed Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in an Aug. 19 homicide attack on U.N. headquarters along with 21 other people.

In New York, U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe said a U.N. security team arrived in Baghdad on Tuesday to begin assessing safety ahead of the elections team. She declined to say how long the security team was expected to be in Iraq or how big the team was.

A separate two-member U.N. security team went to Baghdad on Friday for talks with the coalition about the possible full return of U.N. employees. She would not say how long the security team was expected to be in Iraq or how big it was.

In Baghdad, Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi Governing Council, called Annan's decision "a positive one" and noted the Iraqi leadership had been urging a greater role for the United Nations.

"The Governing Council should have a united position so that things will be easier for the team," he said. "The visiting team should consult with all Iraqis, including al-Sistani, Sunnis and the Kurds."

Sunni and Shiite Muslims as well as Kurds have all been jockeying for power since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.