Washington, which has decreed a lengthy delay before proper elections are held in 2005, can ill-afford to snub the religious leader of Iraq's majority community. 

"Ayat Allah Sistani maintains his call for elections in Iraq unless a neutral UN committee, appointed by Secretary General Kofi Annan, visits Iraq and reaches the conclusion that in the current circumstances it is technically and politically impossible to hold general elections," said interim Governing Council member Muwaffak al-Rubaie. 

Agreement

The Governing Council signed a 15 November agreement with the US-led occupation coalition to transfer sovereignty to a transitional national assembly by 31 May next year. 

General elections would not take place until March 2005, a date Sistani has rejected as far too late. 

The deal gave no role at all to the United Nations, but
stipulates that the transitional assembly will be made up of
notables elected by a 15-member committee.

Five of the committee would be appointed by the Governing Council, the rest by provincial assemblies. 

Compromise

Sistani, who has repeatedly called for general elections to the
first assembly in the new Iraq, rejected a compromise offered by the Governing Council. 

Kofi Annan says it is dangerous
to resume Iraq operations

"We did not reach an agreement on this question and discussions are continuing between the Governing Council and the Marjaiya" (Shia leadership), Rubaie told reporters. 

He met Sistani for three hours along with Ahmad Chalabi, another Governing Council member who is also a Shia, but Sistani threw out their  proposal for a referendum, Rubaie added.

"We put forward a compromise proposal: the appointment of a
committee of  100-150 people from all political currents in Iraq, including those not represented on the council." 

The names would then be put to a national referendum which
Rubaie said would be "easier to organise than general elections" that require constituencies to be drawn up, a list of candidates and an electoral campaign. 

Debate

The interim council's 25 members are clearly divided over the
election issue.

The debate pits those whose prime objective is the return of sovereignty and an end to occupation against those who stress that the Iraqi people must first be consulted to give legitimacy to any new leaders. 

Annan ruled out in a report this week any quick return to Iraq
for the United Nations, saying it remained too dangerous to put his staff at risk. 

But he nevertheless said emergency and humanitarian work could be stepped up despite the grim outlook for security.