WASHINGTON — It is with a certain air of controlled desperation that the Bush administration has asked for a bailout in Iraq from the long-scorned United Nations.
Having invaded Iraq without a UN mandate last March, the administration didn't think to mention any role for the world organization when Administrator Paul Bremer reached an agreement with the American-created Iraqi Governing Council last November for a transfer of sovereignty less than six months from now.
The idea was that assemblies of notables - something like caucuses - would select a parliament with a safe number of delegates friendly to America. The parliament would then elect a provisional government to which power would be handed over with great ceremony on June 30.
But, incomprehensibly, the plan failed to reckon with the feelings of the long- persecuted Shiites, who form 60 percent of the population. They have bitter memories of being twice summoned to rebellion - by the Nixon and first Bush administrations - and twice left to the mercy of Saddam Hussein when the chips were down.
Earlier this month, apparently to the surprise of Mr. Bremer, his election plan was rejected by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the charismatic leader of the Shiites. He demanded a direct election, supervised by the UN. That would undoubtedly give his people a dominant voice in the new government. And the Shiites turned out in the streets by the tens of thousands to support their leader.
Bremer flew back to Washington, felt the pulse of the White House on the need to deal with the UN, and proceeded to New York, figuratively hat in hand, to ask Secretary-General Kofi Annan to broker some kind of compromise on the procedure for the election. That presumably would include a role for the UN in the governing process, something the Bush administration has long refused.
With an air of magnanimity, Mr. Annan indicated that he would try to help.
The administration has a lot at stake. Disruption of the timetable for the creation of an Iraqi government could delay the rotation of US troops and could conceivably become an issue in the American election campaign. So Bush now approaches the UN with something he has espoused but not recently displayed - humility.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.