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Annan Bows Out of the Tug of War Between the U.S. and Iraq


UNITED NATIONS — It is one thing to be the middleman. It's another to be caught in the middle.

After working for more than a year to get Iraq to agree to a resumption of U.N. weapons inspections--and being criticized for the results by the White House--Secretary-General Kofi Annan has decided that it is time to bow out of negotiations over the issue and leave the next steps to Baghdad, Washington and the Security Council, his spokesman said Thursday.

In a week when the Bush administration called Iraq the "greatest threat to the world" and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein insisted that he had no weapons of mass destruction, the Security Council is left to ferret out some form of truth. It's at this pivotal moment that could be the difference between peace and war that Annan is stepping back into the shadows.

"It's a question of what is appropriate for him to do," said Fred Eckhard, the U.N. chief's spokesman. "The secretary-general doesn't run a government. He is serving them. He can go only so far and then it is up to them to act. He feels he is at that point."

Annan declined to be interviewed.

It was not immediately clear what impact Annan's decision might have, though he has been instrumental in the past in mediating between the Hussein regime and the Security Council.

As the head of an organization founded to preserve world peace, Annan--known fondly here as "the SG" or simply "Kofi"--has said that his duty is to help find solutions without bloodshed. But some diplomats say his attempts in the last week to forestall an attack on Iraq went beyond the call of diplomatic duty.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri surprised the U.N. on Monday with a letter to Annan and the Security Council announcing that Iraq would allow U.N. weapons inspectors to resume their work "without conditions." What is just as surprising to some is the genesis of the letter.

Last Saturday, Annan had a meeting with Arab League foreign ministers seeking their help persuading Iraq to comply with U.N. resolutions and allow the return of weapons inspectors. The alternative, they agreed, might be a war that would destabilize the Persian Gulf region.

Arab League chief Amr Moussa brought in Sabri. Under pressure from the other ministers, Annan and Russian officials, as well as the weight of the General Assembly's majority opinion, Sabri called Baghdad to discuss a concession.

With the advice of Annan and his staff on the wording, Sabri exchanged drafts of a letter with Baghdad and eventually came up with a 1 1/4-page announcement about resuming weapons inspections. While Iraq wanted to include its roster of conditions about lifting international sanctions and requiring Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, the secretary-general and others persuaded Sabri to keep it "short and simple," said officials who attended the meeting.

On Monday evening, after a day of swirling rumors, Annan announced that he had received Sabri's letter and welcomed it as "an indispensable first step." Annan's office sent the letter to the Security Council and, half an hour later, released it to journalists.

The prevailing reaction at the U.N. was that Iraq had robbed the U.S. of a pretext for war.

Around the same time that the media received copies, an aide interrupted a meeting here to give U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell the letter. The White House didn't receive its copy until later, stirring intense U.S. dissatisfaction with the way the world body had handled the issue.

Several administration officials said they spoke with Annan about their frustration. They requested anonymity in discussing the issue because they regard continued cooperation between the U.S. and the U.N. as essential.

The officials said that though the letter was addressed to the secretary-general, he should have respected U.S. sensitivity to the issue and given Washington more time to consider the matter before releasing copies to the media. His presentation made it seem like the issue of inspections and disarmament was resolved, they said, while the White House considered the letter a ploy that shouldn't have been taken at face value.

Most importantly, they said, the secretary-general shouldn't have been working so closely with Iraq.

The British, who along with U.S. officials are drafting a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, concurred that Annan's role should recede at this point.

"The SG represents a very wide range of opinion in the U.N.," Jeremy Greenstock, the British ambassador to the world body, said Thursday. "If he is now saying the council has work to do and he's leaving them to do it, I would entirely agree with that."

At the U.N., a diplomat familiar with the situation who requested anonymity said he thought that Bush administration officials were angry because "they were trumped at their own game. Someone put out a media message before they had a chance to.... There are those who are unhappy that the SG once again thwarted a war effort."

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