UNITED NATIONS – Syria won a seat on the U.N. Security Council on Monday with overwhelming support from the nations of the world, despite being on the U.S. list of countries sponsoring terrorism.
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The General Assembly elected Syria to the powerful U.N. body for a two-year term on the first ballot. It received 160 "yes" votes from the 177 nations voting.
Guinea, Cameroon and Bulgaria were also elected on the first ballot. A second ballot was being held to choose between Mexico and the Dominican Republic for a Latin American seat.
Syria was the unanimous choice of Arab and Asian nations for the Asian seat on the council being vacated by Bangladesh on Jan. 1. Candidates that have unanimous regional support are almost always elected.
Last year, the United States led a successful campaign to keep Sudan, also on the U.S. list of terrorism sponsors, off the council.
But this year, despite opposition from Israel and a last-minute appeal from 38 members of the U.S. Congress to President Bush to oppose Syria's candidacy, the U.S. administration has remained silent.
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U.S. deputy ambassador James Cunningham, arriving for Monday's election, said: "It's a secret ballot."
Israel's U.N. Ambassador Yehuda Lancry said Syria's election went against the "spirit and letter" of the U.N. Charter which stipulates that every candidate for the Security Council "should prove its adequacy in terms of its contribution to international peace and security."
"Syria indeed backs terrorist groups inside Syria and outside Syria," Lancry said. "It is really a sheer absurdity and a sheer nonsense to have Syria as a member of the Security Council."
But Saudi Arabia's U.N. Ambassador Fawzi Shobokshi countered Monday that "Syria deserves to be a member of the Security Council ... because they represent a responsible government and the world's people, and play an important role in our part of the world."
In an editorial Monday, Syria's state-run Al-Baath newspaper said Syria wanted to join the council out of its "real concern to see the world enjoy peace and security on the basis of international legitimacy." It said that with the start of the (air) strikes against Afghanistan, there was "an increasing need for a voice that calls for the importance of consolidating peace, security and cooperation in this world."
One major difference between last year's election and this year's is that Syria was running unopposed while Sudan was running against Mauritius in a hotly contested race.
Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Elfatih Mohamed Erwa said Monday that there were differences between his country and the United States last year.
Washington declared its position and "pressed everybody" to vote for Mauritius, a small Indian Ocean nation, he said. "But Syria is opposed only by Israel, not by anybody else."
The political climate is also different, especially following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The United States has been trying to enlist Syria's help in its global anti-terrorism campaign, and Syrian President Bashar Assad has condemned the attacks.
But Rep. Eliot L. Engel, a New York Democrat who collected 38 congressional signatures Friday on a letter to Bush, said allowing Syria to join the council would send "precisely the wrong signal to the international community at this critical time and would be counterproductive to America's efforts to put a halt to global terror."
The Security Council, the top U.N. decision-making body, is made up of 15 members. Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States hold permanent seats. Ten nonpermanent members are elected to two-year terms -- five every year.
Guinea and Cameroon won two African seats being vacated by Mali and Tunisia, and Bulgaria defeated Belarus for an East European seat held by Ukraine.