Darfur peace force extended

By Brian Knowlton

International Herald Tribune, 20 Septembre 2006

The African Union eased the immediate crisis facing the United Nations over Darfur on Wednesday by extending the mandate for its peacekeeping forces in the Sudanese province to the end of the year.

The announcement, 10 days before the mandate was to expire, provided one bit of welcome news as world leaders continued meeting in New York, dealing with issues from the Iranian nuclear program - where there were hints of possible progress - to Middle East peace.

Yet one of the most talked-about events of the day was a speech by President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who used the General Assembly podium in his battle against President George W. Bush, calling him a "devil" who acted as if he were "the owner of the world." Chávez provoked laughter in a half- filled chamber when he said that the podium still "smells like sulfur."

Bush, who avoided the Chávez speech, met Wednesday with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader, and said that for Israel and a Palestinian state to live together in peace was "one of the great objectives of my administration."

In his speech Tuesday to the General Assembly, Bush had mixed a firm call on Iran to end its nuclear ambitions with respectful comments directed to the Iranian people. That tone provided the backdrop when, after a dinner meeting with other countries involved in talks with Iran, the United States signaled new interest in current European-Iranian negotiations.

Under Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns told reporters that those talks were in "extra innings," meaning they had gone past the Security Council deadline of Aug. 31 to end nuclear enrichment activities.

But he likened them to the Dayton peace talks of November 1995, which, while difficult and often flirting with failure, ended with a peace accord for Bosnia.

"What happened," Burns said, "is that in late August the Iranians finally got serious. They sent us that extraordinarily interesting document," the official reply from Tehran to incentives offered by the West.

Referring to the talks between Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, and Ali Larijani, the Iranian negotiator, Burns said: "It's the most serious discussions that I think Solana has had since June 1st. And so we are in extra innings. We are seeking a diplomatic solution, and the United States is certainly willing to support Solana's discussions."

Burns said that if Solana persuaded Iran to verifiably suspend enrichment, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would personally attend the opening of broader new negotiations with Iran on improving relations.

And in an unexpected move, Prime Minister Romano Prodi of Italy said he would meet later Wednesday with the Iranian president.

In his speech, Chávez spoke sharply of a need to remake the UN - a rare point of agreement with the Bush administration - and said it was good for little but as a platform for eye-glazing speeches. He then made use of that platform in a speech that kept most eyes open.

"The devil came here yesterday," Chávez said. "He came here talking as if he were the owner of the world."

He then theatrically crossed himself, as if to protect himself from evil spirits. As the thin crowd tittered - perhaps half the seats were empty - he added that the stage where Bush had spoken a day earlier "still smells like sulfur." That drew more scattered laughter.

Chávez, a leftist populist who tried to seize power in a coup six years before winning election in 1998 on a tide of poverty-driven resentment, looked somewhat incongruous in a buttoned- up gray suit as he delivered an address that blended anti-Americanism with snippets of American life and culture.

U.S. delegates stayed away from the speech, as they had the night before when the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, spoke. Much like Chávez, the Iranian leader accused the United States of hypocrisy - in demanding that Iran drop its nuclear program even while maintaining its own - and of hegemonistic tendencies.

On Wednesday, Bush met with Abbas, praising him as a "man of peace." Bush made no public mention of Abbas's efforts to form a coalition government with the Hamas movement that controls Parliament.

While Abbas said that Palestinians were "in dire need" of U.S. assistance, largely cut off after Hamas's electoral victory, Bush said nothing about when aid might resume.

In his speech, Bush had called for new efforts to protect the people of Darfur from the depredations of militias linked to the Sudanese government.

The underfunded peacekeeping force in Darfur operated by the African Union has been largely unable to stop violence that has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives. African Union leaders and the UN Security Council had called for a UN takeover of the mission. Sudan has refused to allow the United Nations to take over the operation, accusing it of colonialist intentions.

[On Wednesday, thousands of Sudanese marched on the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum to protest against the Western efforts, Reuters reported.]

The session Tuesday had begun with a warmly received speech from Secretary General Kofi Annan, whose term ends Dec. 31.

Annan pointed proudly to advances in his 10 years in office in living standards and security in parts of the world, and to a drop in global conflicts.

But he said the world remained deeply divided by unjust economic differences, contempt for human rights and the inability of the world to fashion lasting peace in the Middle East.

"As a result," he said, "we face a world whose divisions threaten the very notion of an international community, upon which this institution stands."

David Stout of The New York Times contributed reporting from Washington.