Sir Jeremy Greenstock told reporters Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani, widely revered as Iraq's most influential religious leader, now agreed with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's view that there was too little time to arrange direct elections.

"Sistani is interested in direct elections but now understands what the secretary general has said, that the issue of holding direct elections on this time scale is impossible," Greenstock said on the sidelines of Prime Minister Tony Blair's surprise visit to Iraq.

It was not immediately clear whether Greenstock had had direct contact with Sistani, who is rarely seen in public and seldom speaks to foreign officials.

According to a 15 November agreement between Washington and the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, regional caucuses will select an Iraqi national assembly by the end of May, which will pick a transitional government by 30 June.
 
The transitional government would take over sovereignty from occupying powers in July, before a constitution is written and democratic elections are held by the end of 2005.

Smooth transition

Sistani, the chief religious authority for Iraq's Shia, who make up about 60% of the population, has said he prefers elections to caucuses as they are more democratic.

If Sistani does agree that full elections are impractical, it should smooth the process of political transition.

There were fears Shias would not back the
15 November agreement without Sistani's approval

There were fears Shias would not back the 15 November agreement without Sistani's approval. If the cleric accepts its guidelines, Shias are likely to be more invested in the transfer process.
 
"There are signs that Sistani wants to draw back from the politics of this and just have (his opinion) out there that elections are the right way to do this," Greenstock said.

"We think they (Sistani's people) just don't realise how transparent the transfer process is going to be."