KOFI Annan's statement at the UN yesterday evening that elections cannot be arranged in Iraq before 30 June, the date on which the United States has undertaken to return sovereignty to an Iraq government, was not surprising but it left unanswered the critical question of what kind of government can be formed and what chance it will have of maintaining stability throughout the country until full elections can be held. Mr Annan also indicated that the United Nations would be “re-engaging” with Iraq, in the run-up to 30 June and in the long term thereafter.

There are 132 days to 30 June a frighteningly short time in which to ensure that the interim government which takes over on that date is sufficiently representative of the various religious and secular elements in Iraqi society and that the Iraqi police and army will be able to maintain order and security. The United States will maintain a force of some 100'000 troops in Iraq but from 1 July they will be kept in the background and brought into action only at the request of the Iraqi government.

The decision to stay with 30 June for the hand-over may prove to be a grave mistake. The United States wants this timing for its own reasons but there has also been considerable pressure for it from the Iraqi side. There are several options for establishing an Iraqi government by consultation. The most obvious would be to use the existing Iraq Governing Council, perhaps in a strengthened form, until elections can be held. But the far bigger problem is whether the 250'000 hastily trained and inadequately equipped Iraqi police and army will be able to prevent the country from disintegrating into anarchy.