A U.N. security team has arrived in Baghdad to prepare for a possible early return of international U.N. staff to Iraq.
Spokesman Stephane Dujarric says the two-man security liaison team touched down at the Baghdad airport Friday. He says their mission will be to work with the U.S.- and British-led coalition to enhance security for local staff and for U.N. premises in Iraq.
"The opening of a direct line of communication with the coalition on security matters is necessary for the planning for safety and security of U.N. personnel, activities and assets in Iraq, and for an eventual return of U.N. international staff to Iraq," he said.
Mr. Dujarric said the team now in Baghdad is separate from a field security assessment group likely to be dispatched in the near future. He says the timing of the second group's trip would depend on Secretary-General Kofi Annan's anticipated announcement that he will send experts to Iraq to mediate a dispute over whether direct elections can be held in the immediate future.
Mr. Annan said in Switzerland Friday that he would announce his decision next week.
Security Council President Heraldo Munoz of Chile welcomed the dispatch of the liaison team, calling it a good first step. He said Council members - who have been bitterly divided over Iraq policy in the past - were solidly supporting a cautious U.N. re-engagement in Iraq.
"My perception is that if the U.N. is going to play a role, it's because there's a consensus among the members of the Security Council, and all members of the Security Council want the U.N. to play a constructive, positive role," said Heraldo Munoz.
Coalition and Iraqi officials have been lobbying hard to try to persuade U.N. officials to take a greater role in Iraq's transition to self-rule. In particular, they want him to head off a looming political showdown with Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who has demanded direct elections before June 30. That's the date the coalition is scheduled to hand over power to a provisional Iraqi government.
The United States and Britain are urging Mr. Annan to name his newly appointed political adviser, Lakhdar Brahimi, as special envoy to Iraq to help mediate the electoral dispute. The special envoy's post has been vacant since Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed in a bomb attack on U.N. headquarters in Baghdad last August.
Mr. Brahimi - who just returned from his second two-year term as special envoy to Afghanistan - met at the White House Thursday with President Bush and senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell.