UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said on Monday he could not immediately authorise sending a team to study the feasibility of direct elections before the US hands over power in July. 

But with the leader of Iraq's Shia Muslims pressing for a national vote, the UN chief said he would consider the request put forward by the US occupation administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer.

Annan made the statement after meeting Bremer and a delegation from the handpicked Iraqi Governing Council in New York.

"The stability of Iraq should be everyone's business. I think we have an opportunity to work together to try and move forward," Annan said. He said he would take a decision after UN experts consider the request.

UN Baghdad bombing  

"We all agree that it (UN involvement in Iraq) will be easier after July 1 when a provisional Iraqi government is established. But if we get it wrong at this stage, it'll be even more difficult and we may not even get to the next stage"

Kofi Annan,
UN secretary general

Annan has been hesitant to return UN staff to Iraq after he pulled them out three months ago after two deadly bombings at the UN's Baghdad headquarters.

But while he is reluctant to get the world body enmeshed in the US management of Iraq's political transition, Annan also said not getting involved now could make the UN's role tougher after Iraq regains sovereignty.

"We all agree that it will be easier after July 1 when a provisional Iraqi government is established," he said. "But if we get it wrong at this stage, it'll be even more difficult and we may not even get to the next stage."

The US-led coalition and the Governing Council agreed on 15 November to hand power in July to an interim government selected through a caucus system. A constitution would be written later before full elections next year.

But Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani, whose Shia followers were suppressed under Saddam Hussein and fear being marginalised now, wants direct elections.

Shia protests 

His call has brought tens of thousands of protesters onto the streets during the past week.

Yet, Sistani has also indicated he is open to compromise if a mission from the United Nations concluded there was not enough time for the elections to go forward.

Bremer, who announced the United States could modify the plan after a meeting in Washington with top US officials on Friday, praised the UN chief despite not getting the immediate response he had hoped for.

"I think the encouraging news from today was that the secretary-general agreed to consider this request very seriously," Bremer told reporters.

"I think we will see how and when that team comes and what they report. And at that point, we'll be able to make a judgment on the way forward."

Iraqi Shias supported al-Sistani's
call during mass demonstrations

Direct elections 

Among the Iraqi delegation at the meeting were current Governing Council president Adnan Pachachi as well as Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, a Shia political leader who underlined al-Sistani's call for Iraqis to have their political say.

"There should be real participation of the people through the elections in choosing this council," Hakim told a post-meeting press conference.

"If this is not possible, then we should search for the necessary alternatives or the appropriate ones, and we should all cooperate in order to reach these alternatives after we establish the principle, the principle of referring the matter for the Iraqi people," he said.

Pachachi said all parties agreed the 30 June deadline had to be kept and added that, with a law for Iraq due next month that will set the stage for a constitution, time was running short.

"This is an issue that has to be resolved soon, before the end of February," he said.