Adnan Pachachi told reporters after Tuesday's White House meeting that Iraqi authorities and their US sponsors were trying to make the transition "more transparent and more inclusive".

He said: "We want to have a legislative assembly that will really reflect the desires of the Iraqi people and a broad representative base, which is very important."

Later, Pachachi said the interim leadership remained committed to maintaining the 30 June deadline for the transfer of sovereignty and power to an elected or a chosen Iraqi government.

"We are committed to that date and we shall not compromise on it," he said after meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell at the State Department.

Direct elections

The US-backed power-transfer plan has drawn fire from Iraq's pre-eminent Shia leader, Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani, who opposes plans to transfer sovereignty to a transitional government without direct elections.

"We want to have a legislative assembly that will really reflect the desires of the Iraqi people and a broad representative base, which is very important"

Adnan Pachachi,
Iraqi Governing Council

Pachachi conceded that elections would be preferable to the caucus system now in place for selecting a transitional legislature.

But he repeated his belief, shared by the United States, that the likelihood of organising elections this year given current conditions on the ground was slim.

"In principle, we are all in favour of elections," he said. "We believe that elections are the normal way to choose a legislature.

"But because of the shortness of the period available to us and because of the necessity of preparing for elections, there have been some doubts that elections can be held."

UN Iraq involvement

Pachachi said Monday's talks between the United States, the council and the United Nations had gone well.

He said he hoped the world body would "very soon" send a team to assess whether elections could be held before the 30 June power-transfer deadline.

"The United Nations has a role to play, and we have asked them to send a team very soon to Iraq," he said, adding: "I think they are going to send it very soon," with an eye on completing a report on the matter by late February.

Powell said the UN team would be looking "to see whether or not there are refinements that might assist the Ayat Allah and others in accepting that elections aren't timely or appropriate at this time."

However, Iraqi Governing Council member Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who was with Pachachi, said Iraqis had "expressed their view" through demonstrations in which thousands of Shias called for direct elections.

Shia demonstrations 

Iraqi Shias want direct elections 
later this year

"And we said clearly that we should have elections in Iraq and we should keep to the timetable of the transfer of sovereignty," he said through an interpreter.

"This is why we demand the United Nations to send a technical mission to decide the feasibility of the election... "

If a UN team finds it impossible to hold quick elections, the Americans are counting on al-Sistani, who is considered a political moderate, to back off from his threats of civil disobedience.

Britain backs elections

Britain, which provides the second largest number of troops to the US-led occupation, now backs demands from Iraq's Shia community for direct elections.

It is pressing Washington to hold a poll before the transfer of sovereignty from the US-led coalition to a transitional government, a British newspaper said on Wednesday.

British officials say the US is on the verge of bowing to the pressure and that the US occupation administration's top official in Iraq, Paul Bremer, has been persuaded of the need for direct elections as long as they can work on the ground, according to The Guardian.

"Iraq could become a reasonably functioning democracy, or else it will eventually fall apart," one senior British official was quoted as saying by the left-wing daily.