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UN: Muted Response Greets Fall Of Baghdad

As U.S.-led coalition forces strengthen their control over Iraq, the United Nations appears to be sidelined. There have been some new calls for the UN to play a chief role in postwar Iraq but no immediate signs that the UN Security Council -- which would need to authorize such a role -- is unifying over the issue.

United Nations, 10 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Throughout the corridors of UN headquarters, small crowds formed around television sets yesterday as the symbols of Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq were toppled.

Reactions were muted, in part a reflection of the lingering opposition to the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq. Many states view the war as illegitimate since it did not receive the backing of the UN Security Council.

And as the war in Iraq winds down, the United Nations appears to be more a spectator than an actor. The organization that has played such a key role in disarmament and humanitarian affairs in Iraq for more than a decade has been temporarily sidelined. UN humanitarian agencies will soon assume a major role again in Iraq, but key decisions on Iraq's future are so far emerging from Washington instead of the Security Council.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appointed a special adviser to deal with postwar Iraq but has stressed he will wait for direction from the Security Council. Divisions on the council remain. Russia and France, in particular, say they do not want UN moves to legitimize the military action in Iraq.

Russia's UN ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, was asked yesterday about the prospect of appointing a UN coordinator to work with Britain and the United States. He replied, "It's the occupying powers' responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions, and I don't think the UN has anything to do with it."

The council's current president, Mexican Ambassador Adolfo Zinser, told reporters he hopes the council can reach a unified decision soon on the role of the UN in Iraq. "We would like the United Nations to play a very fundamental role because we think that the United Nations is the institution that can guarantee international law and guarantee that certain principles are fully observed in whatever international actions are to be followed in Iraq," Zinser said.

U.S. President George W. Bush said earlier this week that he expects the United Nations to play a "vital" role in Iraq, which was interpreted by many to mean a focus on humanitarian aid.

Washington has appointed a retired U.S. general, Jay Garner, to run civilian affairs in Iraq alongside the U.S. and British military presence for the immediate future. The U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, said he hopes the Security Council can repair its damaged relations to work together to revive Iraq in the weeks and months ahead.

"We would hope sincerely that we could work closely with all council members, including the permanent members, including those members who were opposed to our action in the debate leading up to 17 March. We would hope that they would find a way and see fit to cooperate with us as we go forward in this critical situation," Negroponte said.

For now, the council's cooperation looks to be confined to humanitarian issues. It has passed a resolution handing over control of the oil-for-food program to Annan for a temporary period that ends on 12 May.

And Security Council members have appealed for support for a UN request of $2.2 billion that is expected to help feed and sustain Iraqis for six months.

A major issue looming for the council is assigning control of Iraqi revenues. The council has had authority over Iraqi oil through a series of resolutions dating back 12 years.

Agencies like the UN's World Food Program are sending aid into the northern, Kurdish-controlled sections of Iraq, but they have not ventured into most of the south and center of the country. UN officials require a security assessment by their own personnel before authorizing humanitarian workers to begin operating. Security Council members met late yesterday with nongovernmental organizations focusing on humanitarian and human rights issues.

Pakistan's ambassador, Munir Akram, convened the meeting and told reporters afterward the immediate focus is the welfare of Iraqis. "We have to look now at the human side -- and that is what we were doing today -- before we can look further. I think we have to look to see that lives are not lost needlessly and that those who are vulnerable and in need of help do get that assistance," Akram said.

Meanwhile, Iraq's UN ambassador, Muhammad al-Duri, told reporters yesterday that the war is over. "The game is over. I hope that peace will prevail," he said. Al-Duri said he has had no recent communication with officials in Iraq.

UN officials say the current Iraqi government holds the UN seat until another government hands in its credentials. That is not expected to happen for a number of months. It is not immediately clear whether Iraqi diplomats in New York will remain.