The head of the United Nations Elections agency is being fired 10 days before crucial elections that her office is overseeing in Iraq. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton has questioned the timing of the dismissal.

Senior U.N. officials confirmed Monday that a letter has been drafted notifying Elections Unit Chief Carina Perelli that she has been fired. The officials declined further comment pending delivery of the letter.

Ms. Perelli is a 48-year-old political scientist from Uruguay who won wide praise for supervising elections in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Bush singled her out for recognition in this year's State of the Union address.

But last March, a management consultant hired to study her department faulted her for what was termed "sexual and workplace harassment".

Copies of the consultant's report leaked to the press noted that Ms. Perelli had been locked in a public dispute over how involved the United Nations should be in Iraq. Ms. Perelli favored sending a large group of experts to help organize last January's Iraqi election. Her supervisor, former Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast, who opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, disagreed.

Attempts to reach Ms. Perelli Monday were unsuccessful, but in comments to the New York Times, she rejected the charges against her and vowed to fight them. Referring to the next Iraqi election scheduled for December 15, she said, "In elections you hope for the best, but I fear the worst".

Washington's U.N. Ambassador John Bolton Monday questioned the timing of Ms. Perelli's dismissal. He refused to comment on the specifics of the case against her, but suggested the firing could disrupt the election preparation process.

"The U.N. role in previous elections has been quite helpful and important to the Iraqi people," he said. "This is a major election, obviously the end of this process leading up to the return of full sovereignty to Iraq, and I don't think anybody should do things that disrupt that. Perhaps management has taken that into account, but it's certainly not been explained to us, why a decision has to be taken at this time."

U.N. officials defended the firing, noting that there has been no disruption in the world body's work in supervising preparations for next week's election in Iraq. U.N. Chief of Staff Mark Malloch Brown told VOA that in the eyes of many staff members, Ms. Perelli's dismissal was long overdue.

"There are some who felt it should have been done well before constitutional referendum, and that we were already trying to accommodate these needs in Iraq by delaying it till now... As to the Iraq elections, the key criteria was to find a strong replacement for her in Iraq, and that individual has been on the ground since the time she left the country, so this has absolutely no impact on our preparation for that election," he said.

A U.N. spokesman said Ms. Perelli can appeal her dismissal to a disciplinary committee, and finally to an administrative tribunal.

Her firing comes at a time when the world body is under pressure to take tough action in the face of a series of scandals. U.N. diplomats say more revelations are expected soon in the Iraq oil-for-food scandal, which has dealt a harsh blow to the organization's reputation.