The head of Iraq's U.S. installed Governing Council says he expects the United Nations to dispatch a team of experts to his country to assess the nation's readiness for elections. Iraq is set to return to self-rule by July, but the leader of the country's majority Shiites is rejecting a U.S. plan that would install an interim government by then. The United Nations may become key to finding a solution.

Iraq's Shiite leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is demanding direct elections for what would be the country's first freely chosen government of the post-Saddam Hussein era. And, in recent days, tens of thousands of his followers have taken to the streets to back his call. But the United States, which intends to hand power back to Iraqis by July 1, maintains the country cannot conduct an accurate nationwide poll by then and is sticking with a plan for indirect, caucus-style elections that Washington says can be organized instead.

The key to resolving this dispute may now rest with the United Nations, which the U.S. led occupation authority in Baghdad has largely cut out of Iraq's political process until now.

Adnan Pachachi, head of Iraq's Governing Council, told reporters Wednesday, he expects U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will dispatch a team of election advisers to Iraq very soon. "I believe that he is going to accede to this request and will send a team of experts in the next few days," he said.

That team will look into whether direct elections, as demanded by Ayatollah al-Sistani, can be organized in time for the deadline for the return to self-rule. "If, on the other hand, the United Nations says proper, fair and credible elections cannot be held in the next three months, then I think Ayatollah Sistani will understand," he said.

After briefing lawmakers, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested a range of options are under consideration, all of which, regardless of method, would lead to the same political transition. "Think of us. We just went through the Iowa Caucuses with New Hampshire coming up, a totally different approach. Both were elections," he said.

But complicating the mission for the United Nations are Kofi Annan's concerns about security. The secretary general has been reluctant to send staff back to Iraq following the terrorist bomb attack on U.N. headquarters last August that killed his top envoy and more than 20 others. All foreign U.N. staff have since been pulled out of the country.