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Bremer Says He's Encouraged by Annan Meeting on Iraqi Election Plans

The United Nations is considering whether to send a team to Iraq to mediate a dispute over the timing of forthcoming elections. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's meetings with U.S. and Iraqi officials have moved the world body closer to assuming a lead role in Iraq's transition to self-rule.

Emerging from a two-and-a-half hour meeting with heads of the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, the secretary-general said all sides agree elections should be held in the country soon. The question is, how soon.

Leaders of Iraq's Shiite majority community want direct elections held immediately. Coalition and governing council officials say having a vote too soon could do more harm than good.

U.S. and Iraqi officials asked the secretary-general Monday to send a team to study which course would be better - elections before the scheduled June 30 handover of sovereignty, or after.

Mr. Annan called the matter urgent, and said he would give a prompt answer. In a hint of what his decision might be, he cautioned against moving too quickly, saying "if we get it wrong at this stage, we may not get to the next stage."

He also said he would consider a request that the world body assume a greater role in Iraq before the coalition's scheduled withdrawal.

"As regards a possible role between now and the end of June for the U.N., we have agreed that further discussions should take place at the technical level, which would be focused on the most immediate electoral and security issues," he said.

Mr. Annan said those technical discussions involving U.N., Iraqi and coalition officials were to begin by the end of the day.

U.S. administrator Paul Bremer said he was encouraged by Mr. Annan's response.

"The encouraging news from today is that the secretary-general agreed to consider this request very seriously," he said. "I think we will see how and when that team comes and what they report, and at that point, we will be able to make a judgment on the way forward."

Nine members of the Iraqi Governing Council also attended Monday's meeting. Afterward, most expressed satisfaction with the outcome.

Current Governing Council President Adnan Pachachi said all parties were in agreement that the June 30 target for the handover of sovereignty must be kept. But he cautioned that decisions must be made quickly. With a law due next month setting the stage for a constitution, time for arranging the transition is running short.