UNITED NATIONS – U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) declined a U.S. invitation to send a representative to Monday's meeting in Baghdad on forming a temporary government in Iraq -- a reflection of the world body's still unclear role in reconstruction of the country.
The U.N. (search) role in Iraq is one of the divisive postwar issues facing the council.
Washington wants the United Nations to endorse the Iraqi administration that emerges from the U.S.-organized political process and provide expertise in rebuilding. Many Security Council members, however, want the world body to have a hand in putting together the post-Saddam (search) government.
At the Baghdad meeting, delegates from inside and outside Iraq agreed Monday to hold another meeting next month to form an interim government to fill the political vacuum left by ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Mexico's U.N. Ambassador Alfonso Aguilar Zinser, the current Security Council president, said Annan declined the invitation to send an observer to the meeting because the U.N. role hasn't been defined, a view echoed by several other council members.
A U.S. official, however, accused France and Russia of preventing Annan from accepting the American invitation. Washington's ties with the two countries -- France in particular -- have been severely strained since Paris and Moscow led opposition to the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam.
"Sadly, today's meeting had no U.N. representation," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A French official said it was impossible to imagine a serious U.S. official making accusations about France blocking U.N. participation, and dismissed them as "French-bashing."
France, China and Russia said they didn't think it would be appropriate to send an observer, without knowing what the U.N. role would be in the process of developing an interim authority, council diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
They were not alone on the council with that opinion.
"It's better to know what is going to be the role," said Angola's U.N. Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins. "Otherwise, you're not sure what is expected from you. I think this is more or less the feeling" in the council.
Council diplomats noted that the U.S. invitation was to send an observer, with no clear function, not a representative who would be an actual participant.
The council could face tough debate in coming days on a number of postwar Iraq issues: lifting sanctions and deciding what to do with the U.N. oil-for-food humanitarian program -- and the U.N. role in the new government.
Some council members are concerned about the United States choosing an interim authority, rather than having the Iraqi people pick their own representatives. Diplomats said Annan doesn't want the United Nations to be a rubber stamp to a U.S. decision.
Many council members would like to see the United Nations play a more significant political role, including organizing a conference similar to the one in Bonn, Germany, that led to an interim government in Afghanistan.
"To say the U.N. will play a vital role, a central role, a pivotal role, or any other kind of role is meaningless unless you define what role it is, and that's what the council is trying to do," Annan's spokesman Fred Eckhard said Monday.
Annan has been in touch with council members and has done contingency planning for "a minimalist role vs. a maximalist role" so he will be ready for any decision the council makes.
"It doesn't appear like the council is of one mind yet, but he does sense a gradual coming together of council members that he hopes will produce a consensus in time," Eckhard said.