U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says a Cyprus peace settlement needs to be negotiated by the end of March if both the Greek and Turkish parts of the divided island are to join the European Union by May 1. Mr. Annan also told reporters that security continues to be the essential condition for any U.N. return to Iraq.

Mr. Annan emerged from a meeting with European Commission President Romano Prodi to tell reporters that he still hopes to mediate an agreement to reunify Cyprus, but that time for such a deal is running out.

The internationally recognized Greek Cypriot side is scheduled to join the European Union on May 1. If no arrangement can be reached for the island's reunification, Turkish Cypriots would remain isolated, and Turkey could very well see its own bid to become an EU member jeopardized.

The European Union says a Cyprus solution is not a condition for Turkey to begin accession talks with the Union, but would be helpful.

Turkey last week indicated that it wants to restart negotiations on the U.N. blueprint for reuniting Cyprus. Those talks fell apart last year when Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash insisted that his breakaway mini-state be given international recognition. Mr. Denktash now says he is ready to return to the negotiating table.

Mr. Annan says an accord has to be struck by the end of March to leave time for both parts of Cyprus to hold referenda.

"The plan on the table does envisage that the parties may have a possibility of negotiating changes to the plan," he said. "It is also indicated that where they were not able to agree, they may give me the authority to fill in the gaps, which means that, if you work backwards, ideally we should try to have an agreement between the parties by the end of March to be able to have the simultaneous referenda in April to meet the May 1 deadline."

Mr. Annan says that all parties must show the political will to reach a settlement if both sides of the island are to join the European Union. The U.N. secretary-general is due to meet with Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos soon.

On another subject, the secretary-general insisted on what he called appropriate security measures before he will authorize sending a U.N. team to Iraq to study whether elections can be held there before the planned transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis by the end of June.

"We are concerned. I know the coalition assures me they are doing everything they can, including training Iraqi police and army, to pacify the situation. We are preparing ourselves to be able to go back, but security will be determinant," he said.

Mr. Annan withdrew U.N. staff from Iraq last October, after a bombing at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad two months earlier killed his special envoy and several other U.N. employees.