THE unexpected news that Tony Blair's special envoy to Iraq, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, is leaving Baghdad almost immediately suggests that Britain's influence, never very strong, will be weakened during the coming critical three months leading to the hand-over of administrative responsibility to an Iraqi interim authority on July 1. Sir Jeremy has been in Baghdad for only six months following his key role as Britain's Ambassador to the United Nations during the difficult negotiations over Security Council resolutions on Iraq.

At the retirement age of 60 he is due to take up the directorship of the Ditchley Park conference centre in Oxfordshire where diplomats and others from many countries meet in calm and agreeable surroundings to discuss the state of the world and what is to be done about it.

It is a far cry from New York and Baghdad.
Important as this new job may be in the long term, it is obviously not as important in Mr Blair's eyes as that of bringing a new Iraq into being with the minimum of grief in the short term.

It has been reported that the Prime Minister asked Sir Jeremy to stay on in Baghdad until elections are held at the end of this year and a fully representative government is in place; his disinclination to oblige No 10 can be read in more than one way but it does seem odd that he is leaving just as the United Nations team led by Lakhdar Brahimi, Kofi Annan's special envoy, is due to arrive to help decide how the person to head the interim Iraqi government from 1 July should be chosen and to set up arrangements for the elections later in the year. Sir Jeremy's experience would have been of great importance during this sensitive period.