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United Nations officials are in Iraq to gauge potential for fair elections


BAGHDAD, Iraq - A team of U.N. election experts arrived in Iraq yesterday to gauge the country's ability to hold fair elections.

The visit is intended to resolve a deadlock between the U.S.-backed occupation authority and the country's most powerful Shiite cleric. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has demanded direct elections for Iraq's new legislature, though U.S. officials believe the lack of security and general disarray make a fair vote impossible before the handover of power scheduled for no later than July 1.

The team is expected to travel widely and talk to Iraqis across the political spectrum in the United Nations' first major Iraq project since Secretary General Kofi Annan ordered out hundreds of staff after the August bombing of the U.N.'s Baghdad compound, which killed 23 people.

The United States favors selecting lawmakers through 18 regional caucuses, which would govern until full elections next year. But as opposition to that plan has grown among millions of al-Sistani's followers, the United States is quietly floating changes to its plan that might appease the cleric and permit a smooth handover.

"We are focused like a laser beam on the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqi people on June 30. No other option is under serious consideration," Dan Senor, spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, said yesterday.

Confronted with rising U.S. casualties and political pressure for measurable progress, U.S. officials are keen on maintaining the July 1 deadline, so they are increasingly willing to consider alterations to the caucus structure.

The caucus plan, concluded in a Nov. 15 agreement between the coalition and the interim Iraqi Governing Council, might be changed based on what the United Nations discovers about Iraqis' readiness to vote and the local authorities' ability to administer balloting fairly.

"Certainly there might be ways of improving the caucus system in terms of adding greater transparency and legitimacy," said Feisal al-Istrabadi, a Chicago attorney and legal adviser to a member of the Governing Council.

But, for all the complaints about the thinly detailed caucus system, many of those involved in drafting the framework for the new state dismiss the prospect that elections are feasible amid Iraq's security problems.

"Can you imagine announcing, say, where the 1,000 polling stations would be? You could have two suicide bombings bring a stop to the whole thing in an instant," al-Istrabadi said.

The U.N. trip was requested by the 73-year-old al-Sistani. Annan obliged but emphasized that he is not interested simply in validating the cleric's or the coalition's plans.

"I firmly believe that the most sustainable way forward is one that comes from the Iraqis themselves," Annan said yesterday in New York.

Meanwhile in Iraq, a U.S. Army helicopter crew killed one insurgent and wounded another during a rocket attack against an Army base north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said yesterday.

The two pilots of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter from the 4th Infantry Division's 10th Cavalry Regiment saw smoke trails from two rockets leading toward Logistical Support Area Anaconda near Balad, 65 miles north of Baghdad on Friday.

The crew saw an insurgent who tried to evade the helicopter as it approached. The pilots fired on the attacker, killing him, the military said in a statement.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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