U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan says a U.N. mission will be dispatched to Baghdad to explore whether elections could be held in Iraq in the next few months. Mr. Annan also spoke to reporters in Paris about the chances of sending a multi-national force to Baghdad.
Secretary General Annan said British and American coalition leaders, along with the Iraqi Governing Council, had requested dispatching the U.N. mission to determine whether elections for a transitional national assembly were possible by the end of May.
The election question has divided the Iraqi council, which has delayed writing an interim constitution until the matter is resolved. Iraq's highest Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is calling for a direct and immediate vote before a planned transfer of power from the U.S.-led coalition.
The United States and the Iraqi Council maintain the country is not ready for early elections. The coalition welcomed Mr. Annan's announcement.
Mr. Annan said the U.N. team would try to talk to many Iraqis about the voting question, and try to come up with alternatives, if they determine early elections are not feasible.
"I really hope that their presence and their efforts will help the Iraqis come to a consensus on how to take the transitional process forward," said Mr. Annan. "Because I firmly believe that if the Iraqis can agree on the way forward, then we can have a legitimate and acceptable process, the results of which will be accepted by all. Otherwise you run the risk that the conflict and the divisions will continue."
The secretary general said the mission would take place as soon as practical and security matters had been arranged.
He made his remarks during a joint press conference with French President Jacques Chirac, who led international opposition to the U.S.-led war on Iraq, and called for greater U.N. role in the transformation of Iraq.
Speaking in French, Mr. Annan also appeared to rule out a U.N. peacekeeping role for Iraq. But he said a multi-national security force approved by the U.N. Security Council could be dispatched to help secure and to stabilize Iraq.
Security has been one of the most pressing issues facing the coalition authority and others in Iraq. The United Nations pulled out of Baghdad after its headquarters was bombed in August. Sending the mission there would mark the U.N. return to Iraq after a three-month absence.