IN recent months Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, has given the impression of being semi-detached from the administration of which he has been the most independent-minded member. However, yesterday's announcement of plans for a major international conference on Iraq to be held in mid or late October showed that he is still actively involved in this issue, if not others. The idea for the meeting is said to be that of Iraq's interim prime minister Ayad Allawi who wants it in order to gain the maximum possible regional and international support for the elections due to be held in Iraq in January. The invitation list is likely to be long, embracing the majority of Middle East nations, including Iraq's neighbour Iran, plus members of the G8 group of leading industrialised nations.

THE proposed timing of this conference is obviously relevant to the American Presidential election in the first week of November and it is worth noting that John Kerry said a couple of weeks ago that, if elected, he would call an international conference with objectives similar to those the US and Mr Allawi are now proposing. Any action that might help to improve the prospects for full, free and fair elections in Iraq are to be welcomed but the timing of this proposed conference seems almost precipitous, carrying with it the danger that Iraq would still be in such an unsettled state that the prospect of fair elections would seem remote. Mr Powell contributed to this anxiety yeserday when he commented that unrest in parts of Iraq was putting “a black cloud” over progress and added that he was “not going to underestimate or understate the seriousness of the insurgency”.