The Washington Post said on Friday the possible change in the US plan for a transition to Iraqi sovereignty came after the leader of Iraq's Shia majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, on Thursday rejected the US-led coalition's blueprint for transition and demanded elections at all levels of the Iraqi administration.

"Elections are now a possibility," a senior US official close to Iraq's political transition process told the daily. "We're scrambling to find a solution."

The new thinking in US plans for post-war Iraq also coincides with US President George W Bush's surprise visit on Thursday to Iraq.

Besides meeting US soldiers on the US Thanksgiving holiday, Bush met with some leaders of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.

On 15 November, the US-led coalition announced it would hand over power to a provisional Iraqi government selected by notables to be convened in each of Iraq's 18 provinces, abandoning its previous insistence on prior elections under a constitution approved by referendum.

"We're waiting to see what Sistani says. If he says no to the caucuses, then we have to figure out a way to get elections done"

US official

After Sistani's rejection, however, US officials told the daily that the Bush administration may be forced to organise elections to satisfy Sistani.

"We were surprised that Sistani did not bless the plan," a senior administration official said.

US officials said they were now waiting for a clear statement from Sistani about what he wants. Sistani's reaction to the coalition plan was conveyed to reporters by the head of the Governing Council, Jalal Talabani, after he met with the top Shia cleric in the central holy city of Najaf.

"We're waiting to see what he says. If he says no to the caucuses, then we have to figure out a way to get elections done," the senior US official said.

Ration cards for register

Brushing aside the coalition's insistence that elections of any sort were impossible before 2005, Sistani insisted that the ration-card system in force here for more than a decade gave ample basis for an electoral register.

Another option US officials said they were considering was to hold elections in Shia and Kurdish areas, but only caucuses in Sunni areas, where the worst anti-coalition violence is taking place.

However, Shia leaders argue that such a mixed approach might alienate the Sunni population.