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UN Experts to Arrive in Iraq Shortly - 2004-01-30

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan says a team of U.N. experts should arrive in Iraq within days to assess the feasibility of holding early elections there. Mr. Annan says he made the decision to dispatch the team after he received security assurances from U.S.-led coalition forces.

Mr. Annan told reporters in Brussels before departing for Geneva that the U.S.-led coalition has promised it will do its utmost to protect the U.N. team when it arrives in Iraq. Earlier this week, Mr. Annan indicated that he was willing to send election experts to Iraq, but only if the occupying forces could guarantee the team's safety.

The U.N. experts will try to determine whether it is possible to hold general elections in Iraq before the coalition turns power over to an Iraqi government in June.

A powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani has insisted that the new Iraqi government be chosen in general elections. The Shiites constitute around 60 percent of Iraq's population.

But U.S. authorities in Iraq say holding elections in such a short time span would be impractical because, among other things, there is no reliable list of eligible voters. They are suggesting that an interim government be elected by regional assemblies.

The coalition hopes a report by the U.N. experts will settle the dispute. Shiite leaders in Iraq said Friday they would keep an open mind in dealing with the U.N. team.

Mr. Annan says the dispatch of his election experts to Iraq does not mean that the United Nations is returning its international staff to the war-torn country anytime soon.

The world body pulled its non-Iraqi personnel out of the country last October after a bombing at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad two months earlier killed Mr. Annan's special envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 other U.N. staffers.