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UN Team, Iraqi Leaders Discuss Election Prospects - 2004-02-08

A United Nations fact-finding team has met with Iraqi political leaders in Baghdad to discuss prospects for elections before power is handed over later this year.

The U.N. team met with Iraqi governing council members Sunday inside the heavily-guarded coalition headquarters. It was the first of many discussions on the political future of the country that will take place in the coming days.

The nine-member U.N. delegation is headed by the special representative to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, and includes election and security specialists. Mr. Brahimi has in the past warned against trying to hold an election before stability is achieved in Iraq. He said that the U.N. would do everything in its power to help Iraq ease itself toward democracy.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan sent the team to Iraq on the request of Iraqi groups and American 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 demanded that direct elections be held before the handover. Any recommendations made by the fact-finding team will not be binding, but both the U.S. and Iraqi groups have indicated they will respect any U.N. advice.

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

Meanwhile, the U.S. military said a bomb in a police station south of Baghdad on Saturday killed three officers and wounded many others. They said the bomb was apparently planted by another police officer.