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U.N. election team heading to Iraq

Annan receives an honorary degree at the University of Ghent Friday.
Annan receives an honorary degree at the University of Ghent Friday.

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(CNN) -- The United Nations has said it expects to send election advisers to Baghdad soon despite a warning by U.S. military officials of a rise in violence ahead of Iraqi independence.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Friday the team should be able to start work in the next few days. He made the remarks after U.N. staff arrived in Iraq earlier in the week to review security for an electoral team.

"I think that within the next few days the team should be able to travel and start their work," Annan on Friday told reporters in Brussels, where he was officially opening a new U.N. building.

Most of the organization's officials pulled out of Iraq in October, following an August bomb attack on the group's Baghdad headquarters that killed 22 people, including top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

And U.S. officials fear attacks could mount. "As we get closer to Iraqi sovereignty, we expect to see an uptick in the amount of violence... which we are fully prepared to handle," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters Friday.

He also said the military was geared up for attacks coinciding with the Eid period after the hajj pilgrimage.

The U.S. believes it is impractical to hold elections for a transitional national assembly before it plans to hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi government on June 30 and has come up with a caucus plan to choose the legislature by the end of May.

But Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's top Shiite cleric, and others have staunchly favored direct elections, putting pressure on the U.S. to find a compromise.

Some Governing Council members have recently spoken up in favor of direct elections, but coalition officials have repeated that while they favor refinements to the caucus plan, there is no serious alternative on the table at present.

The handover plan does call for three direct elections in 2005, but coalition officials assert that the machinery will not be in place for such elections by the end of June.

Planned for next year are elections for a constitutional convention, a popular referendum for the permanent constitution written at that convention, and elections for an Iraqi government as prescribed by the constitution.

The coalition said it hoped a U.N. team could come to a decision by the end of February, when a framework for the voting process is incorporated into a transitional law.

According to the handover plan, the transitional law "will formally set forth the scope and structure of the sovereign Iraqi transitional administration" and set down a timetable for approving the permanent constitution and holding elections under that constitution.

Annan has said "the most sustainable way forward would be one that came from the Iraqis themselves." He said consensus "would be the best guarantee of a legitimate and credible transitional governance arrangement for Iraq."

The mission, Annan said, would "ascertain the views of a broad spectrum of Iraqi society in the search for alternatives that might be developed to move forward to the formation of a provisional government."

-- CNN Producer Eden Pontz contributed to this report


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