BAGHDAD -- A UN team began its mission in Iraq yesterday to study prospects for early legislative elections opposed by the United States but demanded by the powerful Shi'ite Muslim clergy.
The Sunni Muslim president of Iraq's Governing Council, however, insisted the UN findings will not be binding on the Iraqi leadership, reflecting divisions among Iraqis over how to restore an independent government by July.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announced the arrival of the team, saying specialists would begin "intensive consultations" with Iraqi leaders and members of the US-led coalition and listen to the views of all Iraqi constituencies.
"I hope the work of this team will help resolve the impasse over the transitional political process leading to the establishment of a provisional government for Iraq," Annan said in a statement issued in New York.
Annan did not say how long the team, led by Carina Perelli of Uruguay, would remain, but a senior Iraqi official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said members would be here about 10 days.
They were expected to travel to the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf to meet Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose demand for early elections threatens to torpedo US plans for transferring power to Iraqis by July 1.
The United States and the Iraqi Governing Council sought Annan's help to overcome objections by the Iranian-born cleric. The Americans want members of the interim legislature to be chosen by regional caucuses. The legislature will in turn name a government to take power from the US-led coalition by July.
Sistani demands that the legislature be elected in a direct vote. The 75-year-old cleric also has said he would accept the recommendations of the UN specialists.
However, many leading Sunni Muslims fear an election under US occupation would produce a government dominated by majority Shi'ites, who were suppressed for generations by Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.
Mohsen Abdel-Hamid, a Sunni Muslim who assumed the rotating Governing Council presidency on Feb. 1, told reporters yesterday that "we are not bound by the findings" of the UN delegation, echoing remarks late last week by another prominent Sunni, Adnan Pachachi, who held the presidency in January.
Abdel-Hamid, who heads the fundamentalist Iraqi Islamic Party, said the Governing Council would be "guided" by the UN team's findings but the final decision "rests with the council in consultation with the coalition."
When an Iraqi reporter expounded at length on Sistani's views about early elections, Abdel-Hamid angrily interrupted him and snapped: "Are you asking a question or giving us a lecture?"
US administrator L. Paul Bremer III, who appointed the council seven months ago, can veto council decisions.
However, failure to resolve the impasse with Sistani would throw the Bush administration's Iraq policies into disarray during an election year and could stoke sectarian tensions in a country already ravaged by terrorism and an insurgency.
As a sign of the tensions brewing here, Pachachi bristled last month when asked if he would be carrying a message from Sistani to Annan during a meeting in New York. "We are not the ayatollah's proxies," he said.
US officials insist that the American timetable for handing power to the Iraqis by July 1 remains on track, and Abdel-Hamid said that regaining sovereignty by that date was "very important to Iraqis."
Despite the two Sunnis' view, senior Shi'ite politician Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, a Governing Council member, said that findings of the UN specialists would be binding since they will work together with Iraqi specialists.
"Only if the Iraqi and the UN experts fail to reach a consensus on the issue will the decision be left to the Governing Council," said Hakim, an associate of Sistani. Hakim said delaying the July 1 deadline for a short period of time would be acceptable.
US officials have cited the precarious security situation, the absence of accurate voter rolls, and lack of an updated election law in opposing an early ballot.
However, the Americans cannot afford to alienate Sistani, who commands enormous respect among Iraq's Shi'ites, who compromise an estimated 60 percent of the population. Many Sunnis challenge that figure.
Shi'ite leaders insist a direct vote is the best and most reliable way to reflect the will of the Iraqi people.
In Cairo, Egypt, an Arab League report obtained yesterday by the Associated Press accuses the US-led coalition in Iraq of threatening the country as well as regional stability by empowering Kurds and Shi'ite groups, reflecting fears that those same groups, minorities in other Arab countries, would be inspired to demand more power.
The report, drawn up by an Arab League delegation that visited Iraq in December,
does not name the country's Shi'ites, but uses the term "sectarianism" to refer to Shi'ite and Kurdish political aspirations.