UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters yesterday he hopes to issue a report on the feasibility of elections by the end of the month.
That's the deadline for the completion of the basic law that the Iraqi Governing Council is preparing to govern the transition of power from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.
UN officials have described the trip as a listening tour aimed at finding a process that Iraqi groups -- Shi'a and Sunni Muslim and Kurds -- can agree on. Annan called the mission technical but also "intensely political and highly charged," which is why he chose senior UN diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi to lead the effort.
He told reporters that UN officials still assume that the 30 June handover date is the target of both the CPA and the Governing Council. But Annan repeated that if the consensus in Iraq is to change that date, he would take it under consideration.
"We are going to talk to all parties. If the parties were to agree to other arrangements, I think it would be difficult to reject it. We will have to consider it," Brahimi said.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a leader of Iraq's majority Shi'a population, has rejected U.S. plans to hold regional caucuses to choose interim leaders by the 30 June deadline. He has pressed for direct elections. U.S. officials say proper elections cannot be conducted in such a timeframe.
Al-Sistani, who has refused to meet U.S. officials, is scheduled to meet Brahimi during the trip. He has suggested he might accept a UN decision on elections.
Members of the Governing Council who have met the UN team have focused on the 30 June handover date. One participant -- Hamid Mussa, chief of the Iraqi Communist Party -- said a majority inside the Governing Council told the UN delegation that they support delaying elections until after the handover of political power.
But Mussa said yesterday that those who want early elections and those who want them delayed are trying to reach a consensus.
The hope of many is that the Iraqis themselves will suggest an option that all sides can support for the interim period, says Heraldo Munoz, Chile's ambassador to the UN and a member of the UN Security Council.
"The ones that command the most support from the Iraqi people should be probably the preferred road, and we hope that this mission will find the best alternative that suits the Iraqis, that gathers the consensus of all Iraqi sectors," Munoz said.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is an expert on Middle East affairs at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy institute. He tells RFE/RL that a possible compromise could be an agreement among Iraqis to hold direct elections some time after 30 June.
"This is a fluid question, and it's not perfectly clear by any means what the attachment to this date is amongst the senior clergy of [Al]-Najaf. It's very clear that if the Americans hadn't picked the 30 June date and put the emphasis on direct elections, then you wouldn't have this confrontation with al-Sistani," Gerecht said.
After a Security Council briefing yesterday by Annan, U.S. ambassador to the UN John Negroponte said U.S. officials would seriously consider the UN's recommendation. But he indicated no change from the preferred U.S. date for the handover.
"We are very committed to the 30 June deadline. This is a date of the utmost importance to us," Negroponte said.
The United Nations has provided electoral assistance to nearly 100 states. They include Afghanistan, where the UN has been involved in organizing and conducting registration ahead of planned elections in June.