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Iraq sends US scurrying to Annan

United Nations, Jan. 19 (Reuters): The US and Iraqi leaders asked the UN today to salvage their strategy in Iraq and send a mission to Baghdad to advise on the feasibility of elections now or suggest a compromise.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was considering the proposal but told reporters further discussions were necessary before he could make a decision on sending what he called a “technical” team immediately.

The request came from the Iraqi governing council, which took the lead in several hours of meetings with the UN and the US-led occupation authorities.

As the meetings began at the United Nations, tens of thousands of Shias marched in Baghdad to support a demand by Iraq’s most revered Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for an elected provisional government rather than indirect elections through caucuses, as Washington proposed.

Sistani’s aides have requested that the UN help straighten out the impasse and suggested a visit, although Annan said earlier there was too little time for direct elections before June 30 when a provisional government is to take office.

Elections are planned before 2005 for a permanent government.

“We would like a technical committee to be sent to look into and consider the matter of elections in Iraq,” said Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Sistani ally, who held the rotating presidency of the governing council in December.

Annan told reporters that, “The issue now is whether the technical, political or security conditions exist for general direct elections to take place as early as May this year. Both the governing council and the CPA representatives have expressed a strong wish that the UN should quickly send a technical mission to Iraq to advise on the feasibility of elections within the next few months, and, if not, what alternative may be possible,” Annan said.

But he said further discussions were needed, after which, “I would be in a better position to take decisions about what the UN can do to help.”

The Bush administration would like the team to be led by Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister, who has just finished a two-year stint in Afghanistan and will become a UN adviser in New York. Diplomats said Bremer spoke to Brahimi early today but no conclusions were announced.

Annan himself called today’s meeting to, in his own words, get some “clarity” on a future UN political role in Iraq. The session included Paul Bremer, the American administrator in Iraq, his British counterpart, Jeremy Greenstock, and a delegation from the US-appointed Iraqi governing council, led by its current president, Adnan Pachachi.

Annan has said repeatedly that safety conditions in Iraq were too dangerous since he ordered out international staff in October, following two attacks on UN offices in Baghdad.

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