A second U.N. security team has arrived in Baghdad, this one to determine whether international political staff could safely return to Iraq. Secretary-General Kofi Annan ordered the security assessment after agreeing to explore the feasibility of early elections in Iraq.

Even as the secretary-general was in Paris announcing his intention to send a political mission to Iraq, a security team was on its way to prepare for the mission's arrival.

The newly-arrived team's task is to determine whether the U.S. and British-led Coalition Provisional Authority can guarantee the safety of a group of U.N. electoral experts. Once that is done, the experts would fly in to try to settle a political dispute over the feasibility of holding elections before the CPA turns over authority to an Iraqi transitional government.

That handover is scheduled for June 30.

U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe declined to provide any details of the security team's size or scope. But she said it would operate separately from the two-person security liaison unit dispatched to Baghdad last week. "Last Friday we announced there was a two-person liaison team on ground. We also said that should the secretary-general decide to send in an electoral team, then another security assessment team will have to go in to make that specific security assessment. That team has arrived on the ground," she said.

Ms. Okabe also said the secretary-general's senior political adviser Lakhdar Brahimi is in Washington at the request of senior Bush administration officials for talks on Iraq's future. It is the 70-year-old Mr. Brahimi's second visit to Washington in a week, and U.S. officials are known to be hoping to persuade him to take on a lead role in Iraq's transition to self-rule.

Mr. Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, recently completed his second two-year term as the Secretary-General's envoy to Afghanistan, where he received high marks from western diplomats.

U.S. officials are reported to see the United Nations as the best hope for compromise in their dispute with the leader of Iraq's majority Shiite community, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. He wants direct elections for a transitional legislature, while CPA officials favor a system of regional meetings where representatives to an assembly are selected.

Secretary General Annan has said he believes the United Nations can play a constructive role in settling the dispute.