With the transfer of Iraqi sovereignty less than two weeks away, there is still much confusion over exactly what role the United Nations will play there come July 1. Any misunderstanding comes from the way the Bush administration has oscillated, since well before the war, between calling the United Nations irrelevant and practically begging it to come to the rescue in Iraq.

The United Nations has been very clear about what it can do: Basically, it will continue with what it has been doing since President Bush personally asked U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan for help in breaking the political impasse there last February -- advising and assisting Iraqis in forming a representative government, as the security situation on the ground permits.

The June 30 handover is a handoff to the United Nations, not just to the Iraqis. The latest U.N. resolution on Iraq, which the Security Council passed unanimously earlier this month, authorizes the United Nations to play a leading role in convening a national conference in July, to advise and offer support on holding elections, and to promote national dialogue and build consensus on the national constitution to be written next year. The resolution also delegates the United Nations to advise Iraq in a variety of other areas, including provision of services; development and humanitarian assistance; and strengthening the rule of law.

The United States is hoping the United Nations will return in force to Iraq soon and has offered a brigade of the U.S.-led multinational force to protect it. But so far, Annan has been unwilling to send a large number of U.N. officials there, preferring instead to send smaller missions to address particular issues, including trips by his special adviser Lakhdar Brahimi, by his elections team, led by Carina Perelli, and by the group led by Paul Volcker that is investigating corruption in the oil-for-food program. The United Nations remains cautious, and rightly so, given the continued violence on the ground; the insurgents make no distinction among foreigners they seek to kill.

Annan's reluctance is not likely to change on the timetable Washington wants, that is, by June 30. That puts the 2005 elections -- which are key to the U.S. exit strategy -- at risk if Washington fails to get the security situation under control.

Why is the United Nations so reluctant to take up its new role? It is hard to overestimate the effect on the U.N. community of the deaths last August of its special envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and two dozen of the organization's most talented staff. Pictures of de Mello and his fallen colleagues still hang throughout the halls of the United Nations in New York. Their deaths weigh heavily on the secretary general, who sent de Mello to Baghdad even though Annan believed that Washington had fundamentally misunderstood the politics of the situation. He will not run this risk again and warned the Security Council last December that "bad resolutions kill people."

The recent resolution makes clear that the United Nations will take on its new mandate in Iraq only "as circumstances permit." With nearly 800 deaths among coalition forces since the war ended on April 30, 2003, Annan has said emphatically that he believes the security conditions do not yet exist for the international body to perform the tasks requested of it. Annan will appoint a special representative to assume Brahimi's political role, but that official and his staff will likely be based not in Baghdad, but in nearby Jordan. The secretary general is concerned that the illegitimacy Iraqis impute to the United States will rub off on the United Nations if it returns to Iraq too soon.

The United Nations will be front and center in the critical effort to organize the 2005 elections. U.N. officials' jaws dropped when President Bush repeatedly referred to Perelli, director of the hitherto obscure Electoral Assistance Division, by name. The fact that he knows her name underscores just how much Washington is depending on those elections.

A top U.N. official recently told me he believes the Bush administration has never understood that the United Nations derives its legitimacy from the fact that it represents everyone, not just the United States. Had Washington ceded control of the political process to the United Nations immediately after war, the organization might have been able to effect a more legitimate transition process than the one that has triggered today's dangerous insurgency. Instead, Washington's mistakes have made the United Nations as much a target as the occupying forces. And that means that the United Nations can no longer pull America's chestnuts out of the fire.

Nancy E. Soderberg, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is vice president for multilateral affairs of the International Crisis Group.