Leaders tell Annan Iraq war ‘real disaster’

UNITED NATIONS — UN chief Kofi Annan said most Middle East leaders he recently conferred with considered the Iraq war “a real disaster,” but felt the United States should not pullout just yet.

“Most of the leaders I spoke to felt that the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath have been a real disaster for them … They believe it has destabilised the region,” Annan said Wednesday during a wide-ranging press conference on his recent trip abroad.

However, he added that many of the same leaders wanted the Americans to stay in Iraq until the security situation improved, pointing out that “having created the problem they cannot walk away.” Other leaders, notably in Iran, felt that “the presence of the US is a problem and that the US should leave, and if the US were to decide to leave they would help them,” Annan said.

“So in a way the US finds itself in a position where it cannot stay and it cannot leave,” he said.

Reaction from the White House was swift.

“I’m not going to engage in a further disputation with the secretary general of the United Nations, but we disagree with the characterisation,” White House Spokesman Tony Snow said, while acknowledging that there was “sectarian violence” in Iraq.

Annan, who returned Friday from a 12-day tour of the Middle East, said he was encouraged by the seriousness with which Lebanon and Israel were pressing ahead with implementation of Security Council resolution 1701 aimed at shoring up last month’s truce.

However, he said the war between Israel and the Hizbollah was a “wake-up call” for the Middle East that highlighted the need to tackle other pressing regional issues.

He threw his weight behind plans to hold a Security Council ministerial session here next week on a comprehensive peace in the broader Middle East.

He said the Arab League’s proposal for the meeting, despite opposition from the United States and Israel, “should not bother anyone.” Annan said he had been told by the current president of the Security Council, Greek Ambassador Adamantios Vassilakis, that the meeting, tentatively set for September 21, was not “quite settled” although “the vast majority of council members want it.” “I don’t think the intention is to come up with concrete solutions but really to discuss the issue and raise awareness of the urgency of tackling outstanding peace issues in the region as well as perhaps asking the council to come up a mechanism or commission a report that will make recommendations as to how to proceed in the future.” To avoid further unrest in the region, the UN chief urged more transparency from Iran on its nuclear ambitions.

“We cannot afford another crisis in this region,” he said. “I appeal to the Iranians to …lift the cloud of uncertainty surrounding their [nuclear] programme, so hopefully this will be done.” He noted that EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Tehran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani held constructive talks last Saturday and said he hoped their next meeting “will be equally fruitful.” The next Solana-Larijani gathering had been scheduled for Thursday but the two men decided Wednesday that only their “representatives” would meet Thursday in Paris.

“The representatives need to do some more work,” Solana’s spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said, and then Solana and Larijani would speak again to decide when they could meet.

“I don’t think confrontation is in anyone’s interest,” Annan said. “The best solution is a negotiated one.” Solana is negotiating with the Iranians in the name of six major powers — the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany — to coax Tehran to accept political and economic incentives to suspend uranium enrichment as demanded by the UN Security Council.

Annan said the main problem was a lack of trust between Iran, which has refused to comply with the UN demand for a freeze, and the West, which suspects Tehran is seeking a covert nuclear weapons capability.

Iran denies the charge and maintains that its nuclear programme is strictly civilian and solely designed to generate electricity.

Turning to strife-torn Darfur, the UN chief reiterated his appeal to Khartoum to reconsider its opposition to the deployment of a 20,000-strong UN force in the region in western Sudan.

He said the issue was “complicated one” that would take time to resolve.

Commenting on his at times testy relations with Washington, notably soured by his opposition to the Iraq war, Annan said he worked “very well” with US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“My relations with the [US] administration is good,” he noted.

“I cannot say my relations with everybody in Washington is good.” The secretary general said he had no plan to stay on when his second five-year term expires at the end of December.

He encouraged UN member states to find a successor “as soon as possible.”

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