The United States has welcomed in principle U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call for a meeting next month on the possible early return of United Nations personnel to Baghdad. Secretary of State Colin Powell discussed the issue by telephone Friday with Mr. Annan.

The Bush administration regretted Mr. Annan's decision in October to withdraw non-Iraqi U.N. employees from that country following a series of attacks, including the August truck bombing at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

But it is welcoming his call Thursday for a mid-January meeting with members of the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-led coalition on whether the United Nations' return to the country can be accelerated.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Secretary of State Colin Powell, only a day after his release from a Washington hospital for prostate-cancer surgery, discussed the issue by telephone Friday with Mr. Annan.

"We certainly appreciate the secretary-general's interest in exploring ways to get the U.N. more involved, more actively involved in Iraq," said Mr. Ereli. "We certainly welcome a dialogue between the U.N. and the Iraqis that would lead to a closer, on the ground, working relationship in Iraqi itself; and we would certainly be willing to play a supportive role in that process."

Mr. Ereli added that the administration was not ready to endorse Mr. Annan's specific call for a three-way meeting on the issue January 15, but said it does support the proposition that such a discussion would be useful.

Before Mr. Annan's comments, at a year-end news conference Thursday, the expectation had been that the U.N. would not return to Baghdad until July when the U.S.-led occupation is scheduled to end and the transfer to Iraqi sovereignty to begin.

The secretary-general has said he must have security guarantees before he sends non-Iraqi employees back to Baghdad. The August 19 attack on the U.N. compound killed 22 people, including the U.N. mission chief, Sergio Viera de Mello of Brazil.

Last week, Mr. Annan named New Zealand diplomat Ross Mountain as his acting envoy to Iraq, and set up offices in Cyprus and Jordan to coordinate Iraqi relief operations. About 2,000 Iraqi U.N. employees are still in the country.