Although the timetable for the ballot is shorter than suggested by the United States, the statement by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani indicated an agreement was taking shape to end the U.S. occupation on schedule.
Such an agreement would probably involve a weak administration assuming sovereignty on June 30 with its primary mission to organize an election in concert with U.N. and U.S. experts.
It is now up to the United Nations, the U.S.-run occupation authority and the Iraqi leadership to decide how to constitute such a government, not only acceptable to the country's majority Shiites but to the Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen and Christians as well.
In other developments:
The United States would prefer expanding the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council to include more Sunnis and other groups to enhance the body's legitimacy among Iraq's 25 million people.
Al-Sistani had initially demanded elections to choose a transitional legislature, which in turn would appoint a government. The elderly, Iranian-born cleric rejected that blueprint because the lawmakers would be selected in regional caucuses rather than by the voters.
However, the United Nations agreed with the Americans that elections before the June 30 deadline were not feasible because of the security situation, the absence of census data and the lack of an election commission and other infrastructure.
In a statement issued Thursday by his office in Najaf, al-Sistani noted that the United Nations ruled out an early ballot but said the world organization's opinion that elections could be possible by the end of the year "is of great significance."
"The period in which an unelected government should take control this country must be short and for few months only," al-Sistani said. He insisted on "clear guarantees, such as a Security Council resolution" regarding the date for elections "so that Iraqis will be sure that there is no more postponement and prolonging."
Al-Sistani said the "the unelected body" that will take power after June 30 "should be an interim administration of limited and clear mandate."
U.S. officials have expressed doubt that elections can be held at all this year, given the slow pace of decision-making on the factious Governing Council. Sunni Arabs on the council are anxious to move slowly, fearing an early ballot would cement control by the majority Shiites, who are better organized.
After toppling Saddam last April, the Americans planned to return sovereignty in 2005 after a permanent constitution was ratified and legislative elections were held. As U.S. casualties rose last November, the Americans pushed forward the sovereignty date to June 30 after al-Sistani insisted that framers of the constitution be elected — a process Washington believed would take too long.
Mr. Bush's administration — eager to end the formal occupation ahead of the U.S. presidential elections in November — has said the June 30 deadline is firm.
Last week, Bremer said the United Nations believed elections could take "somewhere between a year and 15 months," although he added that the process "might be that it could be sped up a little bit."
However, a senior coalition official, when asked about al-Sistani's statement, said simply that the ayatollah was responding to a U.N. report and "we are really turning to the U.N." The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
The remark indicated the U.S.-led coalition wants the United Nations to assume a greater role in the transition to full Iraqi rule.
Despite fears that insurgents might disrupt an election, the commander of coalition forces, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, told reporters Thursday that security conditions in Iraq were "considerably better than what they were 60 days ago" and that the situation was "manageable for whatever government process that needs to take place."