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Audience unmoved during Bush's address at U.N.
( 2003-09-24 20:39) (New York Times)

A president who has led his forces to victory, ostensibly on behalf of the United Nations, would in theory deserve a hero's welcome. But that was not what President Bush encountered in an icy chamber today at U.N., almost five months after he declared an end to major hostilities in Iraq.

Without apology, Mr. Bush declared that the Security Council had been "right to demand that Iraq destroy its illegal weapons and prove that it had done so" and "right to vow serious consequences if Iraq refused to comply." The United States, he said, had not only unseated Saddam Hussein but also defended "the credibility of the United Nations."

But that was not how others, from the secretary general of the United Nations to the French president, saw it. The invasion of Iraq, to them, remained a dangerous act of unilateralism now beset by intractable problems.

The audience of world leaders seemed to perceive an American president weakened by plunging approval ratings at home, facing a tough security situation in Iraq where American soldiers are dying every week, and confronted by the beginnings of a revolt against the American timetable for self-rule by several Iraqi leaders installed by the United States.

Nor did they seem eager to help. If anything, they appeared more skeptical than ever of Mr. Bush's assertions, including his promise to "reveal the full extent" of illegal weapons programs he says exist in Iraq, and unforthcoming, at least for now, in their response to his appeal for help with the Iraq occupation and reconstruction.

Despite good marks from many for his performance, Mr. Bush did not seem to have advanced his administration toward broadening support for a Security Council resolution to expand the United Nations role in Iraq, a step intended to get more foreign troops and more foreign money for rebuilding.

"He gave a very sincere speech, but I don't think there was anything new," said a diplomat here. "The situation in Iraq is getting more difficult every day, and so is the atmosphere at the United Nations."

But today it was more obvious than ever that the key to getting troops and money for Iraq was in the hands of nations that, like France, opposed the war or were uneasy about it.

President Jacques Chirac of France, appearing shortly after Mr. Bush at the General Assembly, was no less apologetic opposing the war than Mr. Bush had been in urging it. He called the divisions over the war one of the gravest threats to multilateral institutions like the United Nations in modern times.

There was another grim reality here today. Even if the United States gets the resolution it desires, the money and troops may not be forthcoming in a way that the Bush administration had hoped. If the goal today was to cajole other countries and persuade them to be more forthcoming with their assistance, it failed to produce any immediate results.

A month ago, administration officials said they wanted billions of dollars pledged for Iraq at a meeting of donor nations in Madrid next month. It now appears they will have to settle for a fraction of that, which will complicate efforts to get the rest from Congress.

Increasingly, as well, the nations that have been asked to send forces to Iraq are not coming through. India and Pakistan now seem to be long shots. South Korea says it cannot decide until the end of October.

Turkey is being asked to send 10,000 troops, but "several thousand might be more realistic," a Turkish official said.

Mr. Bush's performance today seemed to reflect the precarious situation.

Fidgeting in an almost eerily silent hall where the audience observed a tradition of not applauding before or during a speech and offered only perfunctory applause at the end the president spoke in an even tone, occasionally smiling but rarely becoming passionate.

In the corridors all day, diplomats were intensely discussing the recent decline in Mr. Bush's popularity at home and wondering if his troubles would make it easier for countries around the world to oppose the United States on Iraq.

The speech was built around the theme that the war in Iraq was a chapter in the campaign against terrorism being waged to avenge the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and similar attacks in Mombasa, Kenya; Casablanca, Morocco; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Jakarta and Bali in Indonesia; and Jerusalem.

To this list he added the attack on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad last month that killed the United Nations special envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, praised by Mr. Bush as "this good and brave man from Brazil."

Without going so far as to say the United States needed the United Nations in Iraq, Mr. Bush said it was the fledgling government in Baghdad that needed United Nations assistance in developing a constitution, democratic institutions, and holding elections.

But Mr. Bush's vision of the United Nations role continued to be less than the one desired by France, Germany and many others skeptical of the sweeping powers of the American-led occupation, which is called the Coalition Provision Authority. "He said he wanted the United Nations to assist," declared a diplomat here. "But assist what? Assist who? The Coalition Provisional Authority? Please."

A rainstorm lashed the United Nations buildings this morning, while inside another illustration of the tempests over the war emerged in the address by Secretary General Kofi Annan, who deplored the administration doctrine of pre-emptive action epitomized by the Iraqi war.

As if in counterpoint, Mr. Bush defiantly repeated the doctrine, saying that "nations of the world must have the wisdom and the will to stop grave threats before they arrive."

American officials are working to try to broker a compromise on a new resolution that would get French support, but Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, are making clear there will be no early turning over of sovereignty to the Iraqi Governing Council, as France wants.

The main grounds for compromise appear to lie in the possibility of a fixed timetable for the transition to self-rule. Americans said they were cheered by Mr. Chirac's endorsement of what he said was a "realistic timetable" words that, to some ears, left room for something taking place over time.

"We will make enough changes in the resolution to get others on board," said an administration official. "If it turns out that France is on board, so be it. But we're not jumping over hurdles to try to get France into this."

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