The United Nations is preparing to open two new offices in Iraq before next month's elections. The announcement came days after Iraqi officials criticized the world body's low level of involvement in the country's democratic transition.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan has taken the first steps toward boosting U.N. staff levels in Iraq, including establishment of offices in the cities of Basra and Erbil. At present, the maximum number of foreign U.N. personnel in Iraq is set at 59, all of them based in Baghdad.

Secretary-General Annan ordered all staff out of the country after last year's terrorist attacks on the Baghdad headquarters. He has been cautious in reintroducing foreign workers, despite a Security Council resolution urging him to do so "as circumstances permit."

Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie complained to the Security Council this week that lack of U.N. help was hampering preparations for January 30th elections. In announcing the intention to expand the U.N. presence, spokesman Fred Eckhard suggested that caution would continue to be the watchword.

"Let us take this a step at a time. We will see if we can safely expand to the two other cities. If the situation continues to be tolerable, the secretary general would always have the option to send in more people," he said.

Spokesman Eckhard said the staff ceiling would be raised from the present 59 to about 200 to accommodate 150 Fijian troops who are being deployed. But he indicated the number of election workers would be increased only marginally, from about 20 to 25.

Secretary-General Annan is expected to have further talks on staff levels Thursday when he travels to Washington for talks with Secretary of State Colin Powell and his designated successor Condoleeza Rice.