updated 10/21/2004 4:27:36 PM ET 2004-10-21T20:27:36

It is still “technically possible” for Iraq to hold elections in January as scheduled, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Thursday, while acknowledging that the United Nations may not have enough staff on the scene to support preparations for the vote.

Annan also said allegations of corruption in the U.N.-run oil-for-food program for Iraq had harmed the world body’s reputation. The program, which ended in November 2003, was designed to help ordinary Iraqis cope with a decade of sanctions against former President Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The decision on whether to hold or delay Iraq’s elections “will be their call, not ours,” Annan said in remarks to journalists, referring to Iraq’s interim government.

“At this point, it is still technically possible, depending on what happens in the next couple of months,” he said.

“I want to stress that it is the Iraqis who are planning the elections, who are organizing the elections. We are offering support and advice,” he said.

“There has been some question as to whether we have enough U.N. staff on the ground or not. As we move forward, it will become necessary to send in additional staff,” he said, adding that staffing arrangements would depend on either a more secure environment or “solid arrangements for protection.”

Scouting for protection
The United Nations said Wednesday that Fiji had offered 130 troops to protect U.N. staff and facilities in Iraq, making it the first country to respond to requests for a protection force separate from U.S.-led coalition forces.

The United Nations also is holding discussions with the coalition to provide a unit to protect the perimeter of U.N. facilities and U.N. staff traveling outside the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad, said Marie Okabe, a U.N. spokeswoman.

Iraq has been pressing for more U.N. experts to help prepare for elections, but the United Nations has been stymied by insecurity there and by the lack of offers to provide troops for a U.N. protection force.

Although the United Nations had sought to distance itself from relying on U.S. and coalition troops, it has had no choice but to rely on coalition troops to protect the small U.N. staff now in Baghdad.

Annan pulled all U.N. international staff out of Iraq a year ago after two bombings at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and a spate of attacks on humanitarian workers. The first bombing, on Aug. 19, 2003, killed the top U.N. envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 other people.

Oil-for-food scandal
Regarding the scandal over the oil-for-food program, Annan said: “There is no doubt that the constant campaign has, and the discussions have, hurt the U.N. ... And that’s why we want to get to the bottom of it and clear it as quickly as possible.”

The Security Council launched the oil-for-food program in 1996, six years after imposing economic sanctions on Iraq to deny goods to Saddam’s military and punish him for invading Kuwait in 1990.

Allegations of corruption surfaced in January in the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada, which published a list of about 270 former government officials, activists, journalists and U.N. officials from more than 46 countries suspected of profiting from Iraqi oil sales as part of the U.N. program.

Annan set up an outside committee headed by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, to investigate the allegations. Annan met with Volcker for a briefing Thursday on the committee’s work.

Congress also is investigating the scandal, and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the investigating committee, said Monday that U.N. officials “encouraged, or at least tacitly condoned,” Saddam’s widespread abuse of the oil-for-food program.

Last week, a report by Charles Duelfer, the top U.S. arms inspector in Iraq, alleged that the Iraqi government manipulated the U.N. program to acquire billions of dollars in illicit gains and to import illegal goods, including parts for missile systems.

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