WASHINGTON - The United Nations decided yesterday to send a special team to assess whether elections can be held in Iraq by midyear, and a powerful Shiite cleric who has demanded a direct vote told his followers to halt the mass demonstrations that have alarmed the U.S.-led occupation authority.
The developments came as pressure on the Bush administration grew to significantly alter the agreement it reached with the Iraqi Governing Council in November to end the U.S.-led occupation by June 30.
The agreement calls for choosing an interim government through provincial caucuses and holding elections by 2006.
One of the most prominent members of the governing council delivered a stinging critique of the transition plan and declared yesterday that he wanted elections much sooner.
Ahmed Chalabi, long a favorite of Pentagon officials and some key U.S. lawmakers, said in a visit to Washington, "I believe that elections are possible. Seek to make them possible and they will be possible."
U.S. officials said they were "astounded" that he had turned against the American plan. "You never bite the hand that feeds you," said one.
Officials said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will announce next week his decision to send a team of election experts to Iraq. The United States has pushed hard for such a mission, hoping that if the United Nations says fair elections can't be held by midyear for logistical reasons, it would broaden Iraqi support for the U.S. plan.
A U.N. security official and a military liaison arrived in Baghdad yesterday to discuss logistics with U.S. forces. A U.N. security team will follow next week to assess protection needs for the election experts, who will probably head to Baghdad early next month, officials said.
In Iraq, Muhammed Baqir Mehri, a spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistan, urged the cleric's followers to halt protests while the United Nations mission is studying the feasibility of elections.
In a televised statement, Mehri said that "because of the positive atmosphere at the United Nations negotiations, we don't have an interest in such demonstrations now. ... We do not want to escalate the situation after the U.N. decision to send a delegation."
In Washington, Iraqi officials and diplomats said the search for a compromise has renewed interest in a proposal to create an interim government by appointment, rather than through the complex system of caucuses in Iraq's 18 provinces.
The interim government plan has been pushed for months by Adnan Pachachi, the one-time Iraqi foreign minister who is president of the U.S.-picked governing council. Pachachi argues that the United States could create a representative body by adding about 100 members, many of them Shiite leaders, to the existing 25-member council.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Killed in Iraq
As of Friday, Jan. 23, 505 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations, and 2,519 U.S. service members have been wounded. Since May 1, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 367 U.S. soldiers have died.
Two pilots were killed yesterday when their helicopter crashed northwest of Qayyarah.
Army Spc. Gabriel T. Palacios, 22, Lynn, Mass.; killed Wednesday in a mortar attack on a base near Baqubah; assigned to the 588th Engineer Battalion, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.
Army Pfc. James D. Parker, 20, Bryan, Texas; killed Wednesday in a mortar attack on a base near Baqubah; assigned to the 588th Engineer Battalion, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.
- Associated Press