UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to announce early this week whether he will send a team of experts to assess the feasibility of holding direct elections in the next few months. Last week on 23 January, White House spokesman Scott McClellan urged Annan to make a quick decision.
Washington has long sought to meet the 30 June deadline by holding a series of indirect elections or caucuses in Iraq's 18 provinces for a new transitional assembly, which would then choose a provisional government.
The Bush administration has maintained that conditions do not exist in Iraq to hold free and fair direct elections by 30 June, the date set in a deal reached by the U.S. and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) last November.
But growing demands for direct elections by Iraq's majority Shi'a community, led by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, appear to have put a dent in U.S. plans.
With pressure mounting, Washington signaled on 23 January that it may be willing to compromise. U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Washington now has an "open mind" about how to resolve the election dispute: "We continue to look at electoral mechanisms that adhere to the timetable of the November 15 agreement, and we have an open mind about how to most effectively facilitate an orderly transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people within that framework."
A State Department official later acknowledged that the United States is shifting its position to reach a compromise in the face of pressure against its plan.
"Rather than a sort of policy change, what you might be seeing is vocabulary change," said the official, who asked not to be named. "Call it whatever you want -- direct elections, indirect elections, caucuses...Let's find an idea that works for everybody and go with it."
Further pressure was piled on Washington by Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmed Chalabi, a key U.S. ally before the Iraq war who says he supports al-Sistani's call for direct elections.
Chalabi said in Washington that U.S. plans for complex regional caucuses and indirect elections are confusing to Iraqis and may appear designed to thwart certain groups from coming to power: "[The U.S. plan is] not an easy concept to reconcile with democracy. And furthermore, it is also not clear that the people that will be elected will actually be representative of the general population or will respond to their views. And it's not clear that this process will guarantee the election of strong leaders to sit in the assembly."
Chalabi, a secular Shi'a and former exile once seen as close to the Pentagon, made his comments at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
"Do not seek to find a reason why elections are not possible," Chalabi added. "Seek to make them possible, and they will be possible."
Chalabi's remarks amounted to a rejection of a proposal by Adnan Pachachi, the current chairman of the Governing Council, to expand that U.S.-appointed body as an alternative to direct legislative elections.
Given Chalabi's ties to Washington, some question his motives for siding with al-Sistani. Patrick Clawson, an analyst with the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, says, "Chalabi is in a situation where he can win no matter what happens on the election front. If elections have to be held next week, Chalabi is one of the few people in a position to run because he's well-known and he's on the IGC. If the elections are held in a year, then he's well-positioned because he'll be in power for a year."
But Chalabi also said Washington has nothing to fear from Iraq's Shi'a or from al-Sistani. Chalabi said the cleric comes from a tradition of Iraqi Shi'a constitutionalism and is moderate.
Clawson agrees with all of those claims. After scorning the UN for not backing the Iraq invasion, Washington now hopes that Annan can help salvage U.S. plans to transfer power by sending experts to Iraq. The UN pulled out of Iraq after its headquarters was destroyed in a bombing last August but is assessing a return.
U.S. President George W. Bush met briefly last week (22 January) with Lakhdar Brahimi, a senior UN official whom Washington wants to play a leading role in Iraq. Brahimi also met Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, but so far has resisted U.S. pressure to go to Baghdad.
Some analysts suggest that Washington wants Brahimi to lead the UN team in hopes that he will rule in favor of U.S. plans. The State Department dismisses that suggestion.
Al-Sistani has said he would be prepared to accept the decision of a UN assessment team, and analysts say Washington is likely to go along, as well. A previous UN team sent in August ruled that it would take at least six months to hold direct elections.
Analyst Clawson tells RFE/RL that he believes a fresh UN assessment will come to more or less the same conclusion. "My strong assumption is that what the UN team is going to say is that you can either have June 30 or you can have elections, but you can't have both."
That means the choice for Iraqis would be to go with the current handover plan or a compromise proposal and achieve sovereignty by 1 July -- or to choose elections but delay sovereignty until later this year.