WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 — The Bush administration is under growing pressure from Iraqi leaders to shift course and transfer power to an expanded version of its handpicked Iraqi Governing Council, which would then prepare for a direct election later this year, administration and Iraqi officials said Thursday.
The officials said Adnan Pachachi, chairman of the Iraqi Governing Council, had proposed the council expansion as a compromise between the American insistence on selecting a new government through a complex caucus system and the demand for direct elections by Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Mr. Pachachi's proposal comes as demonstrations orchestrated by the ayatollah showcase his political power and its potential to narrow American options. The compromise — what one diplomat called a "third option" — has some support among aides to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, the officials said. Diplomats said Mr. Annan was trying to get the United States and the Iraqi leaders to think about alternatives to elections so that those options, too, could be presented to the ayatollah.
An American official said that the administration was cool to the idea but that it had become part of the discussions with Iraqi leaders.
A senior Iraqi leader close to the administration said: "The idea of expanding the Governing Council has a pitfall. What criteria would be used to expand it? We will have to go through a lot of permutations. Whatever you call it, an expanded Governing Council or a transitional assembly, it will happen."
Opposition to the American plan has been increasing in Iraq since November, when Ayatollah Sistani declared that only direct elections were legitimate as a way to choose an interim government to take power on June 30. But Iraqi leaders and other diplomats say he may be persuaded to accept an expanded Governing Council if it included more of his Shiite supporters.
The council now has 25 members, heavily weighted toward secular Shiites and former Iraqi exiles who were close to the Pentagon's leadership and longtime advocates of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Mr. Pachachi has proposed expanding it to 125 members and turning it into an interim Iraqi legislature.
Discussions about how to choose a government to take office on June 30, the administration's target for transferring sovereignty, have been intense all week, since a meeting on Monday among Iraqi leaders, Mr. Annan and L. Paul Bremer III, the American administrator in Iraq.
According to diplomats familiar with the meeting, Mr. Pachachi presented his idea in the presence of Mr. Bremer, but Mr. Bremer did not signal his views one way or another. The meeting ended with Mr. Annan appealing to the Iraqis and the Americans to try to reach an accord on how to proceed.
The secretary general agreed to consider a request to send a team to Iraq to meet with Ayatollah Sistani and tell him that direct elections were not feasible before the June 30 deadline because of security and technical problems.
Mr. Annan is said to feel that it will not be enough to tell the ayatollah that his desire for an election is not feasible. The ayatollah needs to hear, diplomats said, when an election can be held and what arrangements can be made before it occurs.
The American-backed plan for caucuses is increasingly derided within diplomatic circles as cumbersome and confusing. Under it, caucuses to choose a new interim legislature would take place in each of Iraq's 18 provinces. But before that happens, organizing committees in each province would be established.
These committees would choose "selection caucuses," which would choose members of the new Iraqi legislature, which would then choose a prime minister and provisional government — all by June 30. Several diplomats say the process must be radically streamlined, if not scrapped.
Mr. Pachachi, a favorite of the Bush administration who appeared with Laura Bush, the first lady, in the audience during President Bush's State of the Union address, argues that it will be easier to simply expand the Governing Council.
Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington on Wednesday, Mr. Pachachi said a transfer of power "to an expanded Governing Council" that was " more representative than it is at present" was "a possibility," provided that elections could be held afterward.
At a meeting with reporters and editors at The New York Times on Thursday, Mr. Pachachi said one virtue of his plan was that it would be easier to meet the June 30 deadline for a transfer of sovereignty. He said he was not promoting the plan but was finding considerable interest in it. Officials said, however, that in a private meeting Mr. Pachachi continued to press for the idea.
In public, Bush administration officials continue to express confidence that Ayatollah Sistani will accept the caucus plan with some "refinements," as they put it.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, in an interview for Egypt TV on Thursday, dismissed the idea of transferring power to the current Iraqi Governing Council.
"That was not what we envisioned," he said, "and I don't know how a transfer of sovereignty to the present I.G.C. would go down with the Iraqi people. I think we need a little bit more transparent and participatory process than that."
An administration official noted that Mr. Pachachi had suggested his idea in September but that there was skepticism because it seemed as if he was simply trying to hold on to power for himself and other unelected Iraqis on the Governing Council, many of whom might have trouble winning an election.
"This is not the first time these guys have raised this," said the official. "They were really big on it in the fall. Our answer was `no' then, and so far the answer is `no' now."
But in private, United Nations officials, European diplomats, American officials and Iraqi leaders say there is a growing conviction that Ayatollah Sistani has realized that he has considerable power to get his way and cannot be circumvented.
The fear among many is that if he opposes the caucus process, especially with a religious decree, he could effectively prevent the caucuses from being carried out. Some experts say that the ayatollah is mainly interested in gaining power in Iraq, not in democracy, and that he could be bought off in the process.