UN Leaders Turn to Mideast Conflict

After opening their annual forum with a debate dominated by Iraq, world leaders turned Friday to the deepening Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the tense standoff between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

Yet Iraq remained high on the global agenda, with Arab countries expected to address the possibility of war.

Russia and China also were among 24 countries scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly Friday, a day after Secretary-General Kofi Annan opened the debate with an urgent appeal to the United States not to unilaterally open another war front.

The U.N. leader said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had produced the world's most dangerous crisis, but Iraq's behavior was in second place just ahead of the turmoil in Afghanistan and the India-Pakistan standoff over Kashmir.

Yemen, Morocco, Egypt and Kuwait were also expected to discuss both Mideast crises when they took their turns at the podium in the great General Assembly chamber.

It will also be a day to better gauge world reaction to President Bush's strong words on Iraq.

Bush told world leaders that Saddam Hussein must disarm ``or action will be unavoidable.''

So far America's allies have responded positively, with more expected to comment during their speeches Friday, including Italy, Japan, Australia and Turkey.

But all eyes will be on Russia and China — two veto-wielding countries whose views on Iraq could make or break Security Council support for any U.S. action against Saddam.

The halls at U.N. headquarters were abuzz Thursday with talk of Iraq following Bush's speech.

``Iraq has answered a decade of U.N. demands with a decade of defiance,'' Bush said. ``All the world now faces a test ... and the United Nations, a difficult and defining moment. Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced ... or cast aside without consequence?''

Diplomats agreed something must be done with Iraq but Annan said he opposed any pre-emptive action without Security Council backing — a concern expressed by many countries, including close U.S. allies.

Sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify that its weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed. Inspectors left the country four years ago without making that certification and in advance of U.S. and British airstrikes designed to force Iraq to cooperate with the inspections program.

Since then, Iraq has refused to allow inspectors to return and the stalemate has badly split the Security Council several times.

Tensions and conflict in other regions, including between Israelis and Palestinians, India and Pakistan, and the Koreas, will also share center stage Friday.

South Korea's speech will be pivotal as many in the international community are eager for additional signs that the recently revived reconciliation process with North Korea is moving forward.

And India was expected to answer charges that Pakistan's president made in his speech. President Pervez Musharraf accused New Delhi of holding peace hostage in South Asia and proposed immediate steps to prevent another war between the nuclear-armed nations.

Some 50 presidents and prime ministers and over 125 foreign ministers plan to speak over seven full days of open debate. The meeting, held under tight security one day after the Sept. 11 anniversary, ends Sept. 20.

Many countries are hoping their concerns won't be ignored during the general debate. A daylong meeting on Monday will focus on promoting African development, and countries also want to talk about eradicating poverty and opening world markets.

In addition to the numerous one-on-one sessions between leaders at this year's session, foreign ministers from about 20 countries concerned with Afghanistan will meet behind closed doors on Friday. Senior officials from the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia will meet on Tuesday to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Annan said an international peace conference on the Mideast is needed ``without delay.'' He also urged the international community to help the new Afghan government extend its authority throughout the country, saying ``without this, all else will fail.''