Following meetings yesterday with members of the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Annan said the UN's assistance is being sought in determining whether Iraq is ready for direct elections.
"Both the Governing Council and the CPA representatives have expressed a strong wish that the UN should quickly send a technical mission to Iraq to advise on the feasibility of elections within the next few months -- and if not, what alternatives might be possible. The issue now is whether the technical, political or security conditions exist for general direct elections to take place as early as May this year," he said.
But despite expressions of good faith from all the parties involved in yesterday's talks, it is not yet certain if or when Annan will agree to resume UN participation in Iraq's political development and reconstruction, which has been left almost entirely to the U.S. for the past 10 months.
There has been a rift between the UN and the U.S. over Iraq ever since the world body refused to authorize Washington's military action there. The UN was largely sidelined during the months that followed, and last autumn, Annan removed the UN's international staff from Iraq altogether after the bombing of its Baghdad headquarters, which killed 22 people, including mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello.
This time around, Annan made it clear the UN would consider a return to Iraq only with the proper security and power: "I would want the UN to concentrate on all areas where we have a clear comparative advantage and which all Iraqis consider vital. Further details and discussions are needed to clarify exactly how the UN can best help in the various fields where we have been asked to assist."
Coalition officials and the Governing Council believe the UN may prove invaluable in mediating the mounting conflict between the CPA and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most prominent Shi'a leader.
The CPA has set a 30 June deadline for the transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government, with the selection of officials to be based on a complex system of caucuses in 18 regional provinces. But al-Sistani has rejected that plan, calling instead for direct elections. A growing number of Iraqis are backing his demand, and are staging large protests in the country to call for the CPA to drop its timetable. Tens of thousands of Iraqi Shi'a gathered in the capital Baghdad yesterday in the latest such demonstration. "All Iraqis are one nation [umma]," they chanted. "Yes, yes to the Marji'yah [religious authority]. Long love Iraqis as one umma."
The U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, maintains that elections cannot be organized in time to meet the 30 June deadline. In comments yesterday, Annan appeared to agree, but said the priority now is to determine whether the necessary conditions do in fact exist, and if not, to offer alternatives that might prove more acceptable to al-Sistani and other Iraqis. Bremer said yesterday the question of direct elections deserved serious consideration.
"We think that it is a legitimate question and one where the UN, with its expertise in elections, can offer a prospective. And that is really the intention now of these discussions we had this morning. I said earlier we were pleased that the [UN] secretary-general agreed, with all seriousness and with all urgency, to examine that question."
Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former British ambassador to the UN and the no. 2 CPA official, emphasized the willingness of the coalition authority to grant the UN more active participation in Iraq's political development: "The U.K. and the U.S. share the view of the Iraqi Governing Council that it will be a positive move for a UN team to come and give advice and guidance on the possibilities for the [political] process in the immediate future. We've had a constructive discussion about that, we believe that momentum was added to that prospect by this morning's discussions and that everybody recognizes the need to move as urgently as possible under the terms and the deadlines of the 15th November  agreement [creating a time table for the transfer of power]."
Yesterday's talks came in the wake of the weekend's massive suicide bombing outside CPA headquarters in Baghdad -- an attack that killed at least 24 people, mainly Iraqi civilians, and underscored Annan's concerns about ensuring the security of any UN staff who might re-enter the country.
Adnan Pachachi, the current head of the Iraqi Governing Council, said in New York yesterday he is confident that adequate security measures will be provided: "Certainly, it is our hope that the United Nations can play an active role [in Iraq], and soon. This has been our hope all along. I am optimistic, I think this will be done. Regarding the security arrangements, I think we'll be able to provide the United Nations all the security that is needed. But anyway, this is a matter that can be discussed, so that we can agree on the mechanisms and the details of such protection."
Bremer and the Governing Council delegation are scheduled to hold talks at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department today.