Annan: U.N. will study Iraq elections if coalition guarantees safety

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday that he would send a delegation to study elections in Iraq if the U.S.-led coalition could guarantee its safety.

But underscoring the difficulty of providing a safety guarantee for the mission or for eventual elections, six American soldiers were killed in bomb blasts in Khaldiya, about 50 miles west of Baghdad, and in Iskandariyah, south of the capital, on Tuesday.

The U.N. team would assess whether open elections are possible this spring. Many Iraqis have threatened to revolt unless elections are held for a transitional government that is scheduled to take power June 30. American officials in Iraq say the lack of a census, election laws and security would make it impossible to have safe and open elections.

“I have concluded that the United Nations can play a constructive role in helping to break the current impasse,” Annan said in Paris. “Therefore, once I am satisfied that the (American-led coalition) will provide adequate security arrangements, I will send a mission to Iraq in response to the requests that I received.”

“We have the responsibility to provide for a safe, secure Iraq,” said coalition spokesman Dan Senor. “That’s not to say it’s complete security at all times, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Annan’s announcement signaled a possible U.N. return to Iraq after a three-month absence. The United Nations pulled its foreign staff out of Iraq after attacks on aid workers, including an August bombing that killed the top U.N. envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 other people.

The United States initially didn’t involve the United Nations in planning for Iraq’s transition to self-rule. But after weeks of widespread unrest over the election issue, the Bush administration and members of the interim Iraqi Governing Council requested last week that the United Nations send a team to study whether elections could be held.

The United States announced a plan in November that would hand over power to an interim national assembly chosen by a system of national caucuses, rather than direct elections.

That plan didn’t sit well with many Iraqis, most notably Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the nation’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, whose word is considered law by millions in the country.

Sistani has continued to insist on elections. But a spokesman for him said Tuesday that the cleric was taking a wait-and-see attitude about the U.N. mission and had asked those around him to keep quiet until he was ready to make a statement. Last week tens of thousands of Shiites marched through Baghdad, promising widespread revolt if their leader’s demands weren’t met.