Secretary-General Kofi Annan's reluctance to commit staff members to Iraq in large numbers and a series of comments he has made about the war have strained relations with the Bush administration and left many Americans bewildered, according to both supporters and critics of the UN.
Annan withdrew international staff members from Iraq in October last year in the wake of attacks on relief workers and the bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters, which killed 22 people, including the mission chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Although the UN has been assigned the task of setting up elections scheduled for January, Annan has declined to send more than a handful of electoral workers to Iraq, citing the lack of security forces to protect them.
"The Iraqis and the Americans are completely frustrated," said a senior US official at the UN, reporting views he said he heard in the White House last week. "The secretary-general is still recommending many thousands of peacekeepers in Sierra Leone and the Congo, and yet there are seven election workers in Iraq. That tells the whole story."
This official said that warnings were resurfacing at the White House that the UN was risking becoming irrelevant and that such comments were now being combined with a dismissive attitude toward Annan himself.
"We're beyond anger," the official said. "We won re-election, Kofi's term is up in 2006 and though we have been asking him to define the UN role in Iraq, he is thumbing his nose at us."
William Luers, president of the UN Association of the United States, acknowledged concern among the organization's backers. "I think a lot of Americans who are very sympathetic to the UN are confused with this last phase," he said.
"Most Americans don't really take into account the rule-of-law aspects of international behavior," Luers said. "We generally think what we do is right and in a certain sense we set the rules. Nonetheless, the world doesn't see it that way, and I think Kofi is talking to that world. I think he almost has to be where he is, but it's a tough time for him among Americans."
In an interview Thursday night at his office overlooking the East River, Annan said he was distressed by the criticism.
"I have tried to be as helpful as possible, and I have stated at every opportunity that the stabilization of Iraq is everyone's responsibility," Annan said. "I have argued that regardless of one's position on the war, we must all come together to stabilize Iraq."
At issue are three recent actions by Annan. In September, he suggested in a BBC interview that the war in Iraq was "illegal." He barred lawyers from the UN war crimes tribunal from taking part in training sessions last month for Iraqi judges and prosecutors who will be trying Saddam Hussein and other former Iraqi leaders. And two weeks ago he sent a letter to the US, British and Iraqi governments warning that a military assault on Fallujah could further alienate Iraqis and undermine the elections scheduled for January.
"All of these actions were unhelpful," said Rich Williamson, who was a deputy US ambassador to the UN from 2001 to 2003. "Iraq is a place where the UN could show that it can make a valuable and important contribution, but it is just hurting itself in not helping the Iraqi people and sitting on the sidelines."
Further jeopardizing Annan's image in American eyes are the allegations of corruption and a cover-up in the scandal-ridden oil-for-food program and the intense anger on Capitol Hill at the refusal of the independent investigation headed by Paul Volcker, the former US Federal Reserve chairman, to share documents with the various congressional committees conducting their own inquiries.