But a team would only be sent after an evaluation of security risks, said Annan in a statement released during a visit to Paris on Tuesday.

Such precautions are required by the United Nations due to an attack on its headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August which killed 22 people. The world body withdrew its international staff from Iraq in October.

Time is short for setting up elections, which Shia leaders are demanding. However, Sunni and Kurdish leaders oppose elections now, saying they cannot take place under the occupation.

"I have concluded that the United Nations can play a constructive role in helping to break the current impasse," said Annan.

"I have already made clear that in my view there is no
single 'right way'. I strongly hold to the idea that the most
sustainable way forward would be one that came from the Iraqis themselves," he added.  

Unsuitable atmosphere

Iraq's leading Shia spiritual leader Grand Ayat Allah al-Sistani is spearheading calls for early elections. His allies have indicated the cleric will abide by a UN decision, a key reason why the Bush administration, which had previously scorned the world body, now wants Annan to give the process legitimacy.

Decisions are needed by late February for a provisional national assembly and government to be chosen in time for a 30 June transfer of political power to Iraqis.

UN officials have been as dubious as Washington about direct elections, not just because of the short time left to organise them, but because of the violent atmosphere.

Annan's statement gave no specific date for the mission's
departure.

The United States has proposed a complicated system of caucuses in 18 Iraqi provinces, which most experts believe will have to be changed.