WASHINGTON – President Bush met Tuesday with a leader who acts as a go-between for the Shiite cleric who is demanding direct elections in Iraq (search). The administration also enlisted the United Nations to help resolve the growing dispute over Iraqi self-rule.
Bush met with visiting Iraqis on the day of his State of the Union speech, underscoring his commitment to end the U.S. occupation by July 1 though U.S. peacekeeping troops would stay on after that date.
A leading Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani (search), has pressed for direct elections on both the selection of an interim government and on the presence of U.S. troops.
The administration contends there is not enough time to hold elections before June 30, but it is willing to refine a complex system of caucuses to choose an interim parliament.
Adnan Pachachi, a secular Sunni who is current president of the Iraq Governing Council (search), said after seeing Bush that "we are looking at various options and we hope to be able to make certain refinements."
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite leader who is on the council and is close to al-Sistani, also attended the meetings. He said the Iraqi people "expressed their views through demonstrations yesterday and the day before."
Many of the demonstrators denounced the United States.
"We want the Iraqi people to express their views clearly," he said, renewing al-Sistani's demand for direct elections.
Al-Hakim said he had told Bush that "we should have elections in Iraq and that we should keep to the timetable of the transfer of sovereignty."
"That is why we demanded the United Nations to send a technical mission to decide the feasibility of the election," he said.
Bush made no public statement.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to send a delegation to Baghdad for more talks on the dispute. Powell talked to Annan by telephone Monday evening and planned to consult with him again.
Powell said no specific plan to address Shiite demands for direct elections had been found.
"We want refinements that make sense and get the support of all the parties," Powell said at a State Department news conference.
The administration's reliance on the United Nations to help salvage the transition plan reflects a tactical shift.
Before and during the U.S.-led war last year that ousted President Saddam Hussein, the administration found it had only qualified endorsement for a get-tough policy and went to war without the direct support of the United Nations.
In the war's aftermath, however, the administration began to endorse a larger U.N. role in Iraq as a way of placating countries like France, Germany and Russia that opposed the war.
Pachachi also deferred to the United Nations.
"We feel that the United Nations has a role to play and we have asked them to send a team, very soon, to Iraq to see whether it is feasible to hold elections within the next four months."