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Annan's Decision on Iraq Awaited - 2004-01-26


UN Secretary General Kofi Annan could announce as early as today (Monday) whether he will send a team to Iraq to assess whether elections are possible before the planned transition to full Iraqi sovereignty at the end of June.

Both the Bush administration and the U.S.- appointed Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad have asked the United Nations to study the elections question.

Many members of Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority have been pressing for direct elections before the planned mid-year transfer of power.

A leading Shi'ite cleric has demanded elections, and his followers have staged marches and rallies to emphasize their commitment to that issue.

Mr. Annan, arriving in Stockholm Sunday, told a Swedish reporter he expected to decide "in the next day or so" whether to send a team to Baghdad.

The United States says there is not enough time to organize free and open elections throughout Iraq before the end of June.

The Bush administration's plan calls for regional caucuses (or public meetings) around Iraq that would select members of an interim assembly. That body, in turn, would choose a transitional government that would take office beginning in July and prepare for elections next year.

The growing clamor for elections, however, is reported to have prompted American officials to consider possible changes in the U.S. plan.

The Washington Post (newspaper) quotes a senior UN official as saying the United States is ready to listen to any suggested revisions or even substantial changes in its plan, as long as the transfer of sovereignty takes place by June 30th.

Meanwhile, in Iraq today, U.S. troops searched for three American soldiers missing since Sunday, when an Army helicopter plunged into the Tigris River while on a search-and-rescue mission near the northern city of Mosul.

The helicopter, carrying two pilots, went into the river while searching for a soldier whose patrol boat capsized. All three are still missing. Two Iraqi police officers and a translator died in the original river accident; three U.S. soldiers survived.

Officials have not determined what caused either the patrol-boat accident or the helicopter crash. Search teams came under fire after the helicopter went down.

Five U.S. military helicopters have crashed in Iraq this month. At least three of them were shot down.

Information for this report is provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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