UN chief tries to bridge gaps with US

Tsunami relief and Iraqi elections help an embattled Kofi Annan and the US find common cause

After two years of relations frayed by profound differences over Iraq, the UN and the United States are scoping out common ground, and finding it, in tsunami relief, elections in Iraq, and a special session Monday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.

In her confirmation hearings last week for US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice twice declared "The time for diplomacy is now" - a hint that Washington sees benefits in getting a UN imprimatur on its next moves in Iraq and the war on terror.

But mending fences may be even more important to the international body's embattled leader, Secretary General Kofi Annan. With two years left in his term, Annan is cleaning house and working to improve ties with the UN's host country, largest contributor, and most influential member.

"Having gotten used to idea of being a successful secretary-general, I'm sure he wants to go out that way," says John Ruggie, a former UN assistant secretary-general under Annan who now teaches at Harvard. "You can't be a successful secretary-general if you don't have good relations with the major stakeholders."

When an Iraqi-American, Samir Vincent, pleaded guilty in federal court last week to charges that he lobbied to lift sanctions on Saddam Hussein's Iraq, it was a harsh reminder of myriad investigations into the UN's $64 billion Iraqi oil-for-food program. Mr. Annan - who, with the UN received the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize - wants to put behind him that and other scandals of the past year, which ended with calls in Washington for his resignation.

When Annan took the helm in 1997 as the first secretary-general to rise through the ranks, the UN was tainted by Bosnia's ethnic cleansing and the Rwandan genocides. Topping Annan's agenda were internal reforms as well as the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve global poverty by 2015. His early efforts won widespread praise.

But the Security Council's refusal to endorse the Iraq invasion led to tensions between the US and Annan. He especially angered Bush Administration officials when, during last year's presidential campaign, he called the US occupation of Iraq "illegal."

And over the past year, conservative US pundits have laid into Annan for a series of scandals on his watch: up to $21 billion that Mr. Hussein skimmed through illegal oil sales, bribes, and kickbacks; the $2,500 a month that a company involved with oil-for-food paid to Annan's son, Kojo, for five years; a no-confidence vote that UN staff passed against upper management for its handling of alleged sexual harassment and favoritism; and charges made against dozens of UN peacekeepers in Congo for sexually exploiting refugees under their protection.

The common thread, say critics, is poor management from the top.

But concerns about US disengagement from the UN are overblown, says one analyst, citing US participation in UN peace-making efforts in Liberia, Burundi, Congo, and now Sudan. "Under different administrations, there's always been ... disappointments in US relations with the UN - but never disengagement," says John Hirsch, former US ambassador to Sierra Leone and now a senior fellow at the International Peace Academy. "In the wake of all these events, the US and UN now recognize a moment of opportunity to address several longstanding issues."

Stung by charges of ineffectiveness over Iraq, Darfur, and other conflicts, the UN has thrown the majority of its resources into tsunami relief. Annan is also refreshing his management team and has vowed greater transparency and accountability. Among those departing is Iqbal Riza, Annan's Pakistani chief of staff, who was seen as unsympathetic to US interests, and Peter Hansen, the longtime head of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. Mr. Hansen brought Annan more unwanted attention in October when he said he was "sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll, and I don't see that as a crime." Hansen later said he meant to say, "Hamas sympathizers."

Last week, Annan agreed to replace retiring UNICEF chief Carol Bellamy, a Clinton appointee, with the White House choice, outgoing Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. When Annan introduced the California Republican last week, Ms. Veneman indicated she would abandon Ms. Bellamy's emphasis on reproductive health and sex education, which the administration opposed, to focus on hunger and general health and education issues.

Washington had also pressed for Monday's rare special session of the General Assembly to commemorate the Auschwitz liberation. Annan also pushed for it: The UN was created on the heels of the Holocaust, and Annan is married to the niece of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews in wartime Hungary.

Meanwhile, the UN has helped prepare for Iraq's election and supports holding it despite ongoing violence, though it has expressed concern about the lack of international monitoring on the ground.

As for oil-for-food, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker - who heads the most prominent UN investigation and has promised a "truly definitive report" - is expected to release his findings soon.

Earlier this month, after receiving 50 internal UN audits of the program, Volcker said he found no "flaming red flags." But since then, Mr. Vincent has pleaded guilty and is reportedly cooperating with the Volcker investigation, raising the possibility that more indictments may follow.

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