U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says January elections are still possible in Iraq, as the interim Baghdad government has promised. Mr. Annan suggested he would soon dispatch more staff to assist with election preparations.
A day after Iraq's foreign minister complained about the small number of U.N. election workers in his country, Secretary-General Annan indicated more would be on the way as soon as security arrangements are made.
"There has been some question as to whether we have enough UN staff on ground or not," he said. "As we move forward, it will be necessary to send in additional staff, but the circumstances have to be conducive in the sense that either we have to notice a genuine improvement in the security environment or solid arrangements for the protection of the staff. And we are discussing these arrangements with the MNF"
The U.S.-led MNF, or multinational force, provides security for the 35 U.N. staff in Iraq. Fiji this week volunteered to send a 130-strong force that will be assigned specifically to protect U.N. staff. The MNF will continue to provide security outside U.N. facilities.
The Security Council last June called for elections in Iraq no later than the end of January. Secretary-General Annan has suggested in the past that the date might have to be pushed back in view of continuing violence in parts of the country.
Thursday, however, Mr. Annan indicated he would support whatever decision Iraqi officials make.
"At this point it is technically possible. We still have a couple months, but at this point it is still technically possible, depending on what happens the next couple months," he said.
The United Nations currently has six elections specialists among its 35 staff members in Iraq. Secretary-General Annan has limited the U.N. presence to 35, citing security concerns.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari this week chided Mr. Annan for his failure to dispatch a larger staff contingent. He noted that 300 U.N. elections experts had been sent to East Timor in 1999, at a time when the region was in conflict.