No date was given, but the officials said the team, led by Carina Perelli, head of the UN election unit, would leave before the second week of March to work out the steps needed to prepare for full-fledged polls.

Al-Akhdar al-Ibrahimi, senior adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who led the UN electoral team in a week long visit to Iraq earlier this month, was not expected to return to Baghdad until late March or possibly April, the officials added.

Al-Ibrahimi, in a report delivered to the UN Security Council on Monday, said he preferred to give Iraqis some time to reach a consensus over how the transition to sovereignty should be handled when the US-led occupation ended on 30 June.

At issue is the selection of an interim Iraqi government that would take office on 30 June as well as preparing for elections for a permanent government, not expected until early next year.

The Bush administration, which is trying to re-engage the United Nations in efforts to stabilise the country, had asked the world body to come up with proposals for Iraq's political future before and after the 30 June transfer of power.

The US plan for regional caucuses was dropped by Washington.

Consequently, Annan was asked to come up with a scheme Iraqi leaders of all factions found credible.


Al-Ibrahimi (L) has said the UN is
ready to play a supporting role

In Monday's report, Annan and al-Ibrahimi outlined a series of options, ranging from restoring the monarchy to a round-table conference.

In the report, al-Ibrahimi said the UN was prepared to play a "supporting role" in reaching a consensus on the transition, but Iraqi leaders should try to reach agreement first.

Most diplomats expect al-Ibrahimi will be asked by Iraqis to return to Baghdad and mediate.

His report also recommended an "autonomous and independent" Iraqi Electoral Commission be established to adopt electoral laws, plan registration of voters and oversee campaigning.

One envoy said the UN electoral team would not create the commission, but "try and work out the scope of the job and what they are going to have to do".

No permanent presence

In Tokyo, Annan told reporters al-Ibrahimi and the team "are ready to go back at an appropriate time," but added it was important Iraqis should take the lead.

He indicated the world body was not ready to set up a permanent presence in Iraq.

Annan withdrew staff in late October as a result of the bombing of UN offices in Baghdad on 19 August that killed 22 people, including the head of the mission, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

"Security must be improved," Annan said. "Otherwise, I risk repeating the experience of 19 August."

UN officials expect the world body to set up a permanent office after 1 July, once the occupation ends.