BAGHDAD, Iraq - An envoy for the United Nations said he supported a powerful Shiite cleric's call for elections to install a new sovereign government after having met with the cleric yesterday morning.
But Lakhdar Brahimi did not say whether he thought direct elections could be held by June 30, when the Bush administration wants to put a transitional national assembly in place to appoint the new government.
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said there was "wide agreement" that elections must be carefully prepared and organized, seeming to rule out that any direct elections would be rushed.
Brahimi is leading a U.N. team that arrived this week to assess the possibility of holding quick direct elections. The cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, insists on holding elections to choose members of the national assembly and opposes the U.S. plan to have a caucus-style selection process.
Frustrated by the cleric's demands, the White House asked Brahimi and the United Nations last month to intervene, after Sistani said he would seriously weigh a U.N. opinion.
After meeting with the cleric in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Brahimi told reporters that Sistani "insists on holding the elections, and we are with him on this 100 percent because elections are the best means to enable any people to set up a state that serves their interest."
Brahimi said, "We also agree with His Excellency that the elections must be well-prepared and well-arranged and must be done under the best possible circumstances to get the results that Ayatollah Sistani wants and the people of Iraq and the U.N. want."
Brahimi's statements make it increasingly clear that the White House will have great difficulty carrying out its original caucus-style plan and persuading the Iraqi people of its legitimacy.
American officials have indicated that they are willing to make adjustments to the plan but want to stick to a deadline of June 30 to hand over sovereignty of the country. Direct elections are not possible before then because proper voter rolls and electoral laws cannot be set up in time, they say.
Sistani has said he is willing to postpone direct elections if the U.N. team tells him the process is impossible right now.
Brahimi made his remarks after meeting with Sistani for two hours in the cleric's austere home. The ayatollah lives off a narrow alleyway a few blocks from the Shrine of Ali, one of the holiest sites for Shiites.
Various politicians have met with the U.N. team recently to lobby for their points of view.
Shiite Arab leaders generally support quick direct elections out of respect for Sistani's opinion and because they understand that such elections will help put Shiite Arabs in power - that group makes up at least 60 percent of the population.
Kurds and Sunni Arabs are generally opposed to direct elections for fear that a national assembly and a new government heavily dominated by Shiite Arabs will not honor minority rights. Sunnis ruled the country for centuries under the Ottoman and British empires and the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
One of the most vocal champions of elections has been the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shiite party whose officials often visit Sistani.
"It was a very successful meeting," Haitham al-Husseini, an aide to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the party and an Iraqi Governing Council member, said of the meeting between Brahimi and Sistani. He said he had no further details.
Dan Senor, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, said U.S. administrators were awaiting a report from the United Nations. He added that administrators have begun replacing some members of local councils in order to make the councils "more representative." The councils would be involved in choosing delegates during a caucus-style process.
The U.S. military said two soldiers from the 1st Armored Division were killed in a roadside bomb attack in Baghdad during a patrol Wednesday night.
A mortar round exploded yesterday morning near a Japanese base in the southern town of Samawah, but no one was hurt. Japanese troops arrived in Iraq on Sunday in the first deployment of such a force in a combat zone since World War II.
In Seoul, South Korea's parliament approved a plan today to send 3,000 troops to Iraq in addition to 465 military medics and engineers already there.
The dispatch, approved by a 155-50 vote, would make South Korea the third-largest contributor to coalition forces after the United States and Britain.
South Korea hopes to send the new forces in April to the oil town of Kirkuk. The new deployment, likely to include special forces commandos and combat-ready marines, will be solely responsible for security and reconstruction around Kirkuk.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Killed in Iraq
As of Thursday, 535 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations, and 2,621 U.S. service members have been wounded. Since May 1, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 397 U.S. soldiers have died.
Air Force Master Sgt. Jude C. Mariano, 39, Vallejo, Calif.; died Tuesday in Doha, Qatar, of injuries from a vehicle accident; assigned to the 615th Air Mobility Operations Squadron, Travis Air Force Base, Calif.
Army Sgt. Thomas D. Robbins, 27, Schenectady, N.Y.; killed Monday in Sinjar, Iraq, when munitions exploded; assigned to 14th Cavalry Regiment, Fort Lewis, Wash.
Army Sgt. Elijah Tai Wah Wong, 42, Mesa, Ariz.; killed Monday in Sinjar when munitions exploded; assigned to the 363rd Explosive Ordnance Company, Army National Guard, Casa Grande, Ariz.