Baghdad, Iraq A U.N. team began its mission in Iraq on Saturday to study prospects for early legislative elections opposed by the United States but demanded by the powerful Shiite Muslim clergy.
The Sunni Muslim president of Iraq's Governing Council, however, insisted the U.N. findings would not be binding on the Iraqi leadership, reflecting divisions among Iraqis over how to restore an independent government by July.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced the arrival of the team, saying experts would begin "intensive consultations" with Iraqi leaders and members of the U.S.-led coalition and listen to the views of all Iraqis.
"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 in Iraq, 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 Shiite city of Najaf to meet Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, whose demand for early elections threatens to torpedo U.S. 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 U.S.-led coalition by July.
Al-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 U.N. experts.
However, many leading Sunni Muslims fear an election under U.S. occupation would produce a government dominated by majority Shiites, who were suppressed for generations by Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.