The Bush administration is fast heading toward its own June 30 deadline to hand over sovereignty in Iraq, and yet it's not yet clear exactly who will be given that power.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy who traveled to Iraq this month to look at the question of when to hold elections and to create an interim government, did not provide a direct answer in his report Monday. However, he and his team did considerably advance the power-transfer issue, and for that he should be commended - and heeded.
What he did determine, was that the June 30 deadline should be kept. No matter what critics may say about the convenience of the date coming four months before the US presidential elections, Iraqis have placed their hope in this timeline. To delay would be a mistake.
Iraqis must live with the future they determine. Mr. Brahimi is sensitive to this, and perhaps it is best that he offered options for an interim government, rather than a set solution. Fortunately he recognized, as did Iraqi leaders, that the US plan to hold American-designed regional caucuses to form an interim government was unworkable and alien. Whether Iraqis will be able to settle on one of Brahimi's options is the critical issue. At the least, the American-appointed Governing Council of Iraq should not be allowed to drag out their time in power by putting off elections.
The UN envoy urged swift movement toward elections, perhaps as early as December. It's a compromise between the original US timetable and the demands of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite religious leader, for elections before June 30. But it's based on Brahimi's experience, especially in helping broker Afghanistan's interim government and timetable for elections later this year.
The UN has a track record in setting up elections and power transfers, such as in Cambodia and East Timor. The Bush administration was right to turn to it for advice in resolving its dispute with the Shiites. With many more hurdles to overcome in Iraq's race to a stable, representative government, the US should work more closely with the UN, both to tap its experience and to create the needed legitimacy of a new government in Baghdad.
Working with the UN is not a sign of weakness for the US, but of strength.