In a statement released in the holy city of Najaf on Thursday, Ayat Allah al-Sistani, the Shia spiritual leader, accepted that polls could not be held by July, but said he wanted a UN Security Council resolution to set a firm date.

"The Marjaiya (the religious Shia authority) wants clear guarantees through a resolution by the UN Security Council on the organisation of elections by the end of 2004, as specified by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan," he said.

Sistani had demanded general elections before a 30 June transfer of power from the US-led occupying forces, but a UN report on Monday suggested a "credible" vote could only be held at the end of the year at the earliest.

In accepting the delay, Sistani insisted that the Iraqi body to which power is transferred must focus its efforts on organising elections and avoid tackling other major issues in the transition period.

Annan's report doomed a 15 November accord reached between the interim Governing Council and the coalition on the future of the political process, keeping only the date for a power handover.

'Consensual' power transfer

The UN gave no indications as to how or to whom power should be transferred, saying only that such a move would have to come through "consensus".

Five Shia members of the Governing Council met Sistani later on Thursday and voiced their total support for the contents of the statement.

Ross Mountain says staff cannot
return till matters improve

Annan's report, which was praised by US overseer Paul Bremer, marked the return to centre stage in Iraq of the United Nations after being sidelined by Washington in the run-up to the war a year ago.

But UN interim envoy Ross Mountain made it clear full staff could not return to Baghdad imminently due to security reasons.

"Since I was here in July, the security situation has become an even greater preoccupation," said Mountain. His immediate predecessor Sergio Viera de Mello was killed in a bombing of the UN headquarters here in August. 
 
"The secretary-general (Kofi Annan) has made it clear that security is the major concern," he added.

Mountain is visiting Baghdad to assess the country's humanitarian needs ahead of a conference in Abu Dhabi this weekend where donors will discuss the disbursement of around $15 billion of funds raised to help rebuild Iraq.

Increasing attacks

At the same time, he is meeting with senior US and Iraqi officials to evaluate progress with the reconstruction effort and to weigh up when UN international staff, pulled out last October following the August bombing, might be able to return.

Recent months have seen a sharp increase in attacks on US-backed Iraqi security forces, especially the police. The use of human bombers has caused particular concern to both the US occupying forces and US appointed Iraqi authorities.

"The issue is not if we are coming back with international staff but when and how, and we are looking at various modalities to achieve that," Mountain said.

"I would hope to have a full international staff on the ground by the time elections are held," he added, but steered clear of saying when that might be.