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U.N. help sought on Iraq vote

An estimated 100,000 Muslims demonstrated in Baghdad.

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(CNN) -- Facing protests by tens of thousands of Muslims in Baghdad, top U.S. and Iraqi officials have asked the United Nations to weigh in on whether early direct elections could be held for a provisional government.

Leaders of the U.S.-backed coalition and its handpicked Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan Monday to send a "technical mission" to Iraq to look into the possibility of early elections or other alternatives.

Annan said further discussions would take place before he decided whether to send such a team, but he expressed doubts that direct elections could be held in time for a planned handover to an interim Iraqi government this (northern hemisphere) summer.

"I have indicated that I don't believe there may be enough time between now and May to hold elections," he told reporters after meeting coalition and IGC leaders.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, an estimated 100,000 Sunni and Shia Muslims joined in a massive demonstration in support of calls for early direct elections.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the leading Shia cleric, has called for direct elections in Iraq by the end of June, sparking numerous demonstrations.

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the IGC planned a caucus system for Iraqis to choose a transitional government in June, arguing that infrastructure and stability will not be improved enough to allow for direct elections until next year.

But many Iraqis are insisting on direct elections, calling them a sign of control over their own country.

A U.N. agreement established November 15 calls for a provisional government to be in place by July 1.

Adnan Pachachi, president of the IGC, said that means "the election of the members of the transitional council will have to be ended by the end of May."

Some Iraqis agree with the CPA, he said, "but there are a large segment of Iraqis that feel the matter should be investigated further."

U.N. support for an election system could help provide justification in the eyes of Iraqis.

Monday's march was by far the largest. Participants, overwhelmingly men, chanted and carried signs bearing slogans like "Real democracy means real elections," and a Shia cleric delivered a message from Sistani.

The coalition and IGC have called for Iraqis to choose a transitional government through caucuses, saying there is no time to pull together an electoral infrastructure before the scheduled handover of power to a new Iraqi government by June 30.

Direct elections are scheduled for next year.

Abdul Aziz al Hakim, a religious leader with the IGC who is close to Sistani, took part in Monday's meetings at U.N. headquarters.

He told reporters following the meetings that if a U.N. technical delegation analyzes the situation and meets with religious leaders and "the Iraqi specialized committee on this matter," then the U.N. team's determination "would be respected by Mr. Sistani."

L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator of the U.S.-backed coalition in Iraq, said: "We are open to clarifications or elaborations on the technique by which the transitional national assembly will be selected.

"The encouraging news from today," he said," is that the secretary-general is considering the request very seriously."

Annan said coalition and IGC leaders "expressed a strong wish that the U.N. 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."

Bremer and the IGC also had hoped to persuade Annan to bring U.N. personnel back into Iraq -- a move that may have lost steam Sunday when a suicide bomber detonated a half-tonne of explosives at a main gate of the heavily fortified Green Zone around the coalition headquarters in Baghdad.

The Iraqi Health Ministry said 24 people died and 62 were wounded in the blast. (Full story)

Annan pulled the U.N. out of Iraq in August after a suicide bomber at the organization's Baghdad headquarters killed 23 people -- including his chief envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

The U.S. and the U.N. have faced tensions over control of Iraq, with U.N. leaders saying that once the world body returns to the country it wants more of a say in how things are run than the U.S. seemed ready to cede.

But Annan said Monday "there is widespread agreement among us" that once the provisional government is established at the beginning of July, "the U.N. will have an important role to play in working with the Iraqi provisional government ... on key constitutional and electoral issues."

It will be "easier" at that point, he said. "But if we get it wrong at this stage, it'll be even more difficult and we may not even get to the next stage."

Other developments:

• An Army criminal investigation into reports of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers is focusing on reports of illegal treatment at Abu Gharib prison in Baghdad, a prison notorious for torture of Iraqis during the regime of Saddam Hussein. According to a senior Pentagon official, the reports of abuse came from other U.S. military personnel. "If it happened, it's criminal activity," the official said. It is not clear if there were witnesses to the reported activity, he said, but added there are "credible reports" that there may be photographs of the alleged abuse.

• James A. Baker III is traveling to Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to discuss reduction of Iraq's official debt, the White House said Monday. Baker also will meet with Iraqi officials to discuss the debt situation during his third round of international travel in his role as special envoy on debt relief. Administration officials say Iraq has an unsustainable debt in the range of $80 billion to $125 billion. The United States is owed only about $4.5 billion, including interest. The largest holders of Iraqi debt are the Middle East Gulf states and the Paris Club nations.

• The Coalition Provisional Authority will announce plans Monday to provide 50,000 Iraqis with jobs by July, when the coalition plans to hand over power to a new Iraqi government, CPA officials said Sunday. More than 2,300 construction and other projects are scheduled to get under way this spring using money from $18.6 billion in Iraqi reconstruction funds Congress approved in 2003.

• The first contingent of Japanese troops entered southern Iraq Monday. They will begin preparations for the arrival of hundreds more Japanese troops still waiting in Kuwait to become part of the Multinational Division of southeastern Iraq, a Coalition spokesman said. The small advance group -- mostly engineers -- crossed the border into the desert of southern Iraq Monday morning, the spokesman said. The remaining Japanese troops -- totaling about 1,000 -- remain in Kuwait at the U.S. military's Camp Virginia. (Full story)

Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr, White House Producer Tim McCaugha and Correspondent Dana Bash contributed to this report

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