UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations is close to backing an American and Iraqi request to deploy experts who would assess whether Iraq could hold elections by May for a transitional government, U.N. diplomats told The Associated Press.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan received the request during a Monday meeting with leaders of the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. He said he supported the idea but reiterated that security for such a team was a key concern.
On Tuesday, one U.N. diplomat said approval for an election team could come by week's end. Another agreed that was a possibility, but said the decision might not be announced until a few days later.
The team would head to Iraq soon after that, the diplomats said on condition of anonymity.
Iraqi leaders and the Coalition Provisional Authority want the U.N. team to investigate whether elections can be held for a transitional legislature set to take power by June 30. Iraq's most prominent Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, has demanded direct elections to choose a provisional government.
But the coalition wants to adhere to a handover plan agreed to on Nov. 15 that calls for caucuses to choose a provisional assembly.
Also Tuesday, coalition and Iraqi officials said the coalition may turn over sovereignty to the Governing Council if al-Sistani sticks to his demand for early legislative elections.
Mouwafak al-Rabii, a Shiite, told the AP that al-Sistani would accept up to a six-month delay in elections if U.N. experts conclude they cannot be held before the transfer of power. The council could function as a government until elections are held.
Annan has said he recognizes time is running out. The experts would have to finish their work within weeks because Iraq begins implementing basic laws for the handover and transition by the end of February. Elections would have to be held by the end of May at the latest.
The U.N. Security Council, meeting late Monday with Annan and the Iraqis, unanimously supported the idea of an election team, further pressuring him to make a decision.
At a news conference Monday, Annan said his primary concern was guaranteeing the team's safety. The secretary-general ordered all international staff to leave Iraq in October following two bombings at U.N. headquarters - including one on Aug. 19 that killed top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others.
At the meeting, the coalition and the Iraqis promised to provide security. Those attending included the senior U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer; his British deputy, Jeremy Greenstock; and Governing Council members.
On Tuesday, Governing Council members met with President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington to discuss the dispute over transferring power.
"We want refinements that make sense and get the support of all the parties," Powell said.
One U.N. diplomat said Tuesday the experts' work likely would involve more than one trip. They could first assess what sort of political process is viable, and then return to make sure Iraqis and the coalition agree on the proposals.
All sides agree the June 30 deadline for a handover of power is not up for debate, the diplomat said.
The election team is separate from a four-person mission the United Nations plans to send to Baghdad within a week to assess overall security conditions for a possible large-scale, permanent return of U.N. staff. That team would work out of the so-called "green zone," a barricaded area in Baghdad housing the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition, and would focus on upgrading U.N. facilities outside the protected area.
The United Nations has been clear that if it returns, it would not want its headquarters within that zone, where it could be seen as too closely tied to the coalition.