U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has invited representatives of Iraq's governing council and the U.S.-led coalition to a strategy meeting next month. The meeting could pave the way for an early return of international staff to Iraq.

Secretary-General Annan says he's asked key Iraqi and coalition decision makers to New York in the interests of clarifying what role the United Nations could play in Iraq's transition to democracy. He said the meeting, tentatively set for about January 15, would involve Iraq's governing council and, more importantly, senior U.S. officials in Baghdad.

"Of course that discussion cannot be only with the governing council, the coalition, which is the occupying power, must also indicate what they expect, so it will be a three-way conversation and clarification. Once we have that, I will make a judgment whether we can take on that role, and if so, how, where and under what circumstances," he said.

Mr. Annan said Iraqi governing council members had already accepted his invitation. Coalition officials, however, have been non-committal.

Washington's U.N. ambassador, John Negroponte, said he had not been told about the invitation.

"The secretary general did mention in a discussion I had with him yesterday the idea of trying to get a better understanding from both the coalition and the governing council of precisely what clarity could be added, to what would be expected of the United Nations were it to resume an active role inside Iraq, particularly with respect to facilitating the political process," he said. "I was not aware, at this stage, of any invitation to the coalition."

Ambassador Negroponte reiterated comments he had made repeatedly over the past few weeks that the United Nations has a vital role to play in Iraq, as spelled out in existing Security Council resolutions.

In his statement, Mr. Annan made clear that he has not ruled out a return of international U.N. staff before the establishment of a provisional government next June. He also said he might visit Iraq in the coming months, and would discuss the trip in his talks with Iraqi and coalition officials.