BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S.-backed plan for handing over power to Iraqis is unacceptable as it stands, according to a top Shiite Muslim leader who met with President Bush this week.
However, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim said Friday that the Americans, as well as others, are slowly coming around to the need for elections to choose a new legislature rather than have the members named by 18 regional caucuses.
"As it stands, it's unacceptable," al-Hakim said of the political blueprint reached Nov. 15 between L. Paul Bremer, America's top civilian official in Iraq, and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. "It was hurriedly agreed."
In military developments, a U.S. Army OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter attached to the 101st Airborne Division crashed Friday in northern Iraq, killing the two pilots, the U.S. military said.
The cause of the crash was unclear. It was the fourth helicopter crash suffered by U.S. forces in Iraq this month. Friday's deaths brought to 507 the number of American service members who have died since a U.S.-led coalition launched the Iraq war March 20.
The Bush administration said Friday that it was holding to its July 1 deadline for ending the U.S. occupation but the method of selecting a new government wasn't decided.
"We have an open mind about how to most effectively facilitate an orderly transfer of sovereignty," State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to announce on Monday he was sending experts to Iraq to try to find a formula acceptable to all Iraqi groups, and determine whether direct elections were possible.
"We are looking forward to an early positive response from the secretary-general and that team so that we can basically investigate all the alternatives," Ereli said.
Iraq's top Shiite cleric urged followers Friday to stop public demonstrations in support of his call for an early vote until U.N. experts decide whether an election is feasible.
Tens of thousands have marched in Baghdad and elsewhere in support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, whose opposition to an earlier U.S.-backed plan forced Washington to drop it.
Al-Hakim, who was among members of a Governing Council delegation who met with Bush on Tuesday at the White House, heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country's most powerful Shiite political group.
His views carry considerable weight in Iraq, where the Shiite majority has risen to dominate the political scene after decades of suppression by the Sunni Arab minority.
Al-Hakim, a close associate of al-Sistani, described as "complicated" the part of the U.S.-backed plan providing for the selection of members of the transitional legislature through regional caucuses.
The proposed legislature will appoint a government that will take over sovereignty from the U.S.-led coalition July 1.
Under the plan, Iraqis will vote early next year to chose delegates who will draft a constitution. The draft will later be adopted in a national referendum. The third and final 2005 vote, under the plan, is to elect a new parliament.
Faced with al-Sistani's demand for an early vote, Iraqi and U.S. officials asked Annan on Monday to dispatch a team of experts to Iraq to see whether an election was feasible before July 1. Annan will make a decision on sending a team next week, a spokesman said Friday.
A U.N. security team arrived in Baghdad on Friday to study the possible return of international staff from the world body, months after deadly bombings at the Baghdad U.N. headquarters prompted Annan to withdraw them from Iraq.
If the experts conclude an early vote is not feasible, then sovereignty could be handed over to the Governing council, said al-Hakim, but he added it was "a last-resort option."
He said U.S. and U.N. officials were slowly coming to understand the political aspirations of Iraqis after Saddam Hussein's ouster.
"We see day after day that their convictions are moving closer," he said.
In the Shiite holy city of Karbala, a representative of al-Sistani quoted the cleric as calling on supporters not to march again in support of his demand for an early vote until the U.N. experts' findings become known.
However, protests should be held if they become necessary again, the representative, Abdul-Mehdi al-Karbalai, told worshippers in a Friday sermon.
Another leading member of the Governing Council, Ahmad Chalabi, said in Washington that he believes Iraq should be able to have elections with six months of planning. He also said Saddam left Iraq deep in debt, and that his crimes will come to light when he is tried by Iraqis.