2nd Day of U.N. General Assembly to Focus on Middle East

The Mideast peace process was taking the spotlight at the United Nations on Wednesday as world leaders gathered for the second day of the 61st General Assembly, with ministers from the Quartet that drafted the stalled "road map" peace plan — the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia — planning to meet.

The Security Council also was scheduled to hold a ministerial meeting Thursday that Arab leaders hope will help revive the Mideast peace process.

President Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sparred over Tehran's disputed nuclear program Tuesday but managed to avoid a personal encounter as a military coup ousted the prime minister of Thailand

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stayed on message during an emotional farewell address Tuesday, appealing to the world to unite against human rights abuses, religious divisions, brutal conflicts and an unjust world economy.

Annan, who is to leave office on Dec. 31, also warned that the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to raise questions about the U.N.'s impartiality and stymie its efforts to resolve other conflicts, "including those in Iraq and Afghanistan."

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Jordan's King Abdullah II said that until Israel ends its occupation of Palestinian lands and gives Palestinians their rights, the cycle of violence will continue in the region and its effects will be felt throughout the world.

"I come before you today with a deep sense of urgency," Abdullah told the assembly. "Never has it been more important for the world community to act decisively for peace in my region."

Bush tried to advance his campaign for democracy in the Middle East during his address to the General Assembly on Tuesday, saying extremists were trying to justify their violence by falsely claiming the U.S. is waging war on Islam. He singled out Iran and Syria as sponsors of terrorism.

Bush also pointed to Tehran's rejection of a Security Council demand to stop enriching uranium by Aug. 31 or face the possibility of sanctions. But he addressed his remarks to the Iranian people in a clear insult to the government.

"The greatest obstacle to this future is that your rulers have chosen to deny you liberty and to use your nation's resources to fund terrorism and fuel extremism and pursue nuclear weapons," the U.S. leader said.

"Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions," he said. "Despite what the regime tells you, we have no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program."

He said he hoped to see "the day when you can live in freedom, and America and Iran can be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace."

Ahmadinejad took the podium hours later, denouncing U.S. policies in Iraq and Lebanon and accusing Washington of abusing its power in the Security Council to punish others while protecting its own interests and allies.

The hard-line leader insisted that his nation's nuclear activities are "transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eye" of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog. He also reiterated his nation's commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Earlier this month, Ahmadinejad proposed a debate with Bush at the General Assembly's ministerial meeting after the White House dismissed a previous TV debate proposal as a "diversion" from serious concerns over Iran's nuclear program.

But even though the two leaders spoke from the same podium, they skipped each other's addresses and managed to avoid direct contact during the ministerial meeting.

Providing an unusual backdrop, Thailand's military staged a bloodless coup while Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in New York. Thaksin initially switched speaking slots so he could make his speech on Tuesday evening, a day earlier than planned, but later canceled the address.

Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a staunch U.S. ally who spoke shortly after Bush, urged the world to confront the plague of terrorism head-on and end conflicts in the Islamic world to eliminate the "desperation and injustice" that breed extremism.

"Unless we end foreign occupation and suppression of Muslim peoples," he said, "terrorism and extremism will continue to find recruits among alienated Muslims in various parts of the world," he said, and the top priority should be ending "the tragedy of Palestine."

As speaker after speaker expressed concern about the rise of terrorism in the world, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, warned that military spending was not the answer.

He said that more than $200 billion had been added to global military spending since the Sept. 11 attacks five years ago.

"There is not a single indicator that suggests that this colossal increase is making the world more secure and human rights more widely enjoyed," he said. "On the contrary, we feel more and more vulnerable and fragile."

The crisis in the ravaged Sudanese region of Darfur also was on the sideline agenda Wednesday at the United Nations, with the African Union's Peace and Security Council scheduled to discuss breaking the deadlock over a plan to replace an AU force with U.N. peacekeepers.

The Sudanese president said his country will not allow the United Nations to take control of peacekeepers in Darfur under any circumstance, claiming that rights groups have exaggerated the crisis there in a bid for more cash.

But Omar al-Bashir did say that the African Union, which now runs the peacekeeping mission in Darfur, should be allowed to augment its forces with more logistics, advisers and other support.

"We want the African Union to remain in Darfur until peace is re-established in Sudan," al-Bashir said at a news conference. Those comments suggest that the African Union will not face any resistance in renewing the peacekeeping force's mandate, which expires on Sept. 30.

In her speech to the General Assembly, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said the stalemate over whether a U.N. or AU force should be deployed "demonstrates a lack of international will to address the sufferings and yearnings of the citizens and residents of Darfur."

Saying the U.N.'s obligation to protect the helpless and innocent must remain paramount, she called on the Security Council to act under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which allows military intervention, "to restore peace, security and stability to Darfur."