U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has warned the United States, Britain and Iraq that a military assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah could disrupt planned elections. The warning elicited strong reactions.


In a letter, dated October 31, Secretary-General Annan says a full-scale offensive against the Iraqi rebel stronghold of Fallujah could undermine efforts to hold nationwide elections in January. The letter sent to President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi urges the U.S.-led coalition to give more time for dialogue to succeed.


U.N. officials Friday refused to comment on the letter. Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast called it a privileged communication.


"The Secretary General has a pretty wide-ranging correspondence with a large number of world leaders.  He regards such correspondence as privileged, and he's not going to be commenting and we're not going to be commenting on any individual item in it or alleged item in it," he said.


Mr. Prendergast was speaking at a news briefing at which he and senior U.N. elections expert Carina Perelli outlined plans to beef up the staff assisting Iraqi officials as they prepare for the scheduled January 27 election. But he was vague on when or how many additional staff might be deployed to Baghdad.


"The Secretary-General does accept that we need to deploy more people in order to fulfill that role, and we will be deploying those people as circumstances permit," he added.


U.N. officials have repeatedly used the phrase "as circumstances permit" to justify their decision to limit the world body's presence in Iraq to a bare minimum.


The Secretary-General's warning letter was met with a mixed reaction. A spokesman at Iraq's mission to the United Nations said Ambassador Samir Sumaidy would meet with Mr. Annan Monday to express his country's position. Prime Minister Allawi, in Brussels to attend a European Union summit, said his government intended to liberate Fallujah and bring the rule of law to its people.


U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Secretary of State Colin Powell had already phoned the Secretary-General to express his concerns about the letter. Explaining the U.S. position, Mr. Boucher said "frankly, we differ."


"The restoration of peace in Fallujah and other towns is very important to them and to us, and it needs to be done soon for the sake of the people who live there, who deserve a chance to participate in the political process, who deserve a chance to participate in the elections, who deserve a chance to participate in Iraq's future and not be held hostage by terrorists and thugs," said Mr. Boucher.


Britain's U.N. Ambassador Emyr Jones-Parry was quoted as saying the question of Fallujah is for the Iraqi government to decide. He told the Los Angeles times newspaper "there cannot be an area as big as Fallujah which is allowed to be a base for terrorism."


U.S. jets have launched air strikes against the rebel stronghold and roads leading to the city are blocked in preparation for an expected assault by Iraqi and coalition forces.