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Annan Firm About Holding National Elections in Iraq Next Year

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is keeping the door open for possibly extending the June deadline for establishing an interim government in Iraq. But the goal of holding national elections late next year remains firm.

Secretary-General Annan declined to say when a U.N. team would go to Iraq to help resolve the dispute over how and when to set up a provisional government. He says security and other considerations are still uppermost in his mind.

But with the deadline for transition of power to a provisional government less than five months away, Mr. Annan admits time is becoming a critical factor.

When he met last month with leaders of Iraq's ruling Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council, the June 30 deadline was considered firm. But a day after meetings with Bush administration officials in Washington, the secretary general left the door open for possible delays.

"When we met here… with the CPA and Governing Council, both parties indicated the June 30 date was firm," he said. "But we could, beyond that, we could really come up with options that they can look at and that can help them establish a provisional government. So, we are working on agreement between them. If they were to change that understanding agreement, of course, it is something we would have to consider."

Mr. Annan said the team he is sending to Iraq is charged with settling both political and technical disagreements about how and when to arrange a transfer of power. He indicated that the process of reaching an agreement acceptable to all parties involved is likely to be complex and time consuming.

"We are dealing with an issue that is described as technical, but is also highly political. So you cannot separate the two," he explained. "And in the process, we need to talk to some of the leaders to see what it is that can be agreed on, so we can move forward and establish a provisional government."

The U.S. and British-led coalition's plans for the handover of power have been disrupted by Iraq's Shi'ite religious leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. He wants direct elections to choose a provisional assembly, rather than the caucus system proposed by the coalition.

Mr. Annan says, regardless of what compromise might be found, he will keep in mind the goal of holding national elections in Iraq by late next year.