The UN's support for elections comes as discontent appears to be growing among the country's majority Shi'a population against the U.S.-led occupation and the general lack of security in the country.
The UN's electoral envoy in Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, met yesterday with leading Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has strongly urged direct elections rather than the caucus system proposed by the U.S.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has also said there is wide agreement that elections in Iraq must be carefully prepared, and that they must be organized in proper conditions to best reflect the wishes of the Iraqi electorate.
Iraq's Shi'a, who make up more than 60 percent of the country's population, want elections to be held before the planned 30 June transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis. However, Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for Brahimi, said today that "elections between now and the 30th of June are highly unlikely" because of the lack of security in the country.
The Shi'a seem to be losing patience with the U.S.-led occupation for just this reason, as well as widespread unemployment. Last month, anti-coalition protests took place in the southern city of Al-Amara. Residents of the largely Shi'a town were demanding jobs and clashed with British troops and Iraqi police for two days. Five Iraqis were killed.
Anti-American feelings erupted earlier this week after 53 Iraqis were killed in a terrorist attack on a police recruiting station in Al-Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad. Some residents claimed to have seen an American aircraft flying at the time of the attack and said it was the U.S. plane -- not a suicide bomber -- that had inflicted the casualties. They say the U.S. is interested in sparking ethnic unrest in an effort to prolong its military presence in the country.
The feelings were far different last March and April, when Shi'a in the south welcomed the arrival of invading U.S. troops.
However, some Shi'a politicians and religious leaders say too much should not be read into the recent protests.
Hawza al-Ilmia is the powerful Shi'a movement led by al-Sistani, which is based in the holy city of Al-Najaf. Shaykh Abd al-Jabbar Menhal is Hawza al-Ilmia's representative in Baghdad. He says the Shi'a support the U.S. because "the Americans are doing exactly what the Shi'a want -- trying to transfer power to the Iraqis."
He also says the Shi'a would only rise up against U.S. troops if urged to do so by religious authorities. Jabbar says he cannot imagine al-Sistani giving such orders now, while the U.S. and the UN appear to be doing all they can to meet his demands.
He says anti-American demonstrations in Al-Iskandariyah do not reflect the mood either of the Shi'a community or its leadership.
"This is just a reaction to the [bombing]. It is not a general impression in the minds of the Shi'a. It is just reaction to the incident which happened in Al-Iskandariyah. Maybe they blame [the Americans because] they did not offer or provide the required security to the city, but it is not the general attitude of the Shi'a against America. Of course, the Shi'a want the Americans to leave today, not tomorrow, but increasing hostility against America? I don't think so," Menhal said.
Abdul Hassein al-Hasnawee is an officer in the political department of the Islamic Accord Movement, a Shi'a political party. He also discounts a growth in anti-American sentiment in the south. Al-Hasnawee says the demonstrations were organized by loyalists of Saddam Hussein.
However, Mahmud Uthman, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi Governing Council, says he believes the feelings of the Shi'a toward U.S. troops are, indeed, undergoing a change. He says Iraqis blame the Americans for bombings and attacks because U.S. troops are responsible for security in the country.
"You could explain them very well because people are suffering from those car bombs and destructions and explosions, and in Al-Iskandariyah about 50 were killed and today [11 February] another explosion happened [in Baghdad], and a similar number was killed. Of course, they will hold demonstrations because the Americans are responsible for security in Iraq. The security file lies with them completely. So people are furious about that," Uthman said.
Uthman says anti-American demonstrations are becoming a regular occurrence in Iraq because attacks are also becoming routine.
"Yes, well, it looks like [a pattern]. It's very bad when it happens. I think we expect people to shout slogans against Americans, even against our Governing Council, because they hold these people responsible for security," Uthman said.
He says that if such deadly attacks continue, outrage against the presence of U.S. troops -- and the rumors that fuel such sentiments -- might spread all over the country, although perhaps not in Kurdish-controlled territories in the north.
"In Kurdistan, the situation is different because America is not ruling Kurdistan. There is a Kurdish administration. There are two of them. They rule. Americans don't interfere in that governing, which is rather good and everybody knows that these [recent terrorist attacks] in Irbil -- the crimes that were committed -- were done by people of Ansar al-Islam or some other extremists. They know Americans have nothing to do with it, and Americans are not responsible for security in this area. The Kurds are responsible. So, if they blame anyone, they will blame the Kurdish government," Uthman said.
There are only several hundred U.S. troops in the autonomous Kurdish region.
Othman believes the only way to eliminate anti-American sentiment throughout the country is to follow the Kurdish example and to return full responsibility for security to Iraqis.
(Sami Alkhoja contributed to this story from Baghdad.)