Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, yesterday came down on the side of the US in declaring that direct elections demanded by the majority Shia population in Iraq are not feasible before 30 June.
Speaking after a meeting with the UN's special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, Mr Annan said the transfer of power from the US to an interim Iraqi government should none the less go ahead by that date. Earlier Paul Bremer, the chief US representative in Baghdad, took the same position, indicating that, while the formula for setting up an Iraqi administration could be changed, the planned handover date of 30 June remained.
Mr Annan's remarks reflect the importance accorded the UN by Washington as it struggles to find a workable exit strategy from Iraq that will permit President George Bush to point to a substantial and successful US disengagement before he faces voters in November.
Having minimised the role to be played by the world body in a post-Saddam Iraq, the Bush administration now reluctantly accepts that the UN is the best-placed to give advice acceptable to all sections of the population, and has asked Mr Annan to come up with a plan.
Mr Bremer pointed out that there were "dozens" of methods for selecting a new government. "Changes are possible but the date holds," he said, adding that among the options was a redesigned version of the caucuses, or partial elections, proposed in the handover plan unveiled on 15 November.
That proposal was opposed by the Shia leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on the grounds that only direct elections would guarantee that the majority Shia community was adequately represented in government.
Mr Brahimi does not seem to have changed the Ayatollah's mind during their talks in Iraq this week, even though the UN - like the US - believes that the lack of security on the ground, and difficulties in compiling registers of eligible voters, make elections as early as June all but impossible.