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UN Experts in Iraq to Study Early Elections - 2004-02-07

A United Nations fact-finding team arrived in Iraq Saturday to determine if the country could be ready for general elections this summer.

As the U.N. team arrived in Baghdad, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in New York the team will consult with American and Iraqi authorities, and try to listen to all Iraqi views and perspectives. He said he hopes it will then provide a way to resolve the impasse over how sovereignty is handed over to Iraqis, scheduled for June 30.

The U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad says it will give support for the fact-finding team, while it is in Iraq and provide any cooperation the U.N. team may need. Dan Senor is the coalition spokesman in Baghdad.

"The U.N. will be operating as an independent entity in Iraq," he explained. "We will be here to provide them with logistical and security support. We fully understood and fully supported the Governing Council's decision to request the U.N. to come in and take a closer look at the situation."

Mr. Annan sent the team to Iraq upon the request of Iraqi groups and U.S. officials, after leaders of the country's Shi'ite majority rejected a U.S. plan for an appointed interim government. The United States maintains there is not enough time to prepare for elections before the scheduled handover.

Leading Shi'ite Cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani encouraged his followers to oppose the U.S. plan. The Ayatollah demanded that direct elections be held as soon as possible. Thousands of his followers took to the streets in support. He has hinted, however, that he may meet with representatives of the U.N. team and accept their decision.

Details of the team's schedule have been kept secret, due to security concerns following last summer's devastating bomb attack on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, which led to the U.N.'s withdrawal from Iraq.