He has been the quiet man through months of crisis. Officially the world's chief advocate of peace, the U.N. secretary-general has been conspicuously silent at times in the face of looming war. And that, say some who know the United Nations best, is just how Kofi Annan should have been handling Iraq.
''He has to stay out of it, keep his head down, because this is a battle of the major powers,'' said Jean Krasno, a U.N. historian at Yale University.
Sir Brian Urquhart agreed. ''I don't find it surprising at all'' that Annan hasn't pushed more publicly for specific compromise solutions, said the retired U.N. undersecretary general, crisis veteran and author of studies of U.N. leaders.
''When you have such a tremendously highly publicized debate between a series of leading countries, I don't think the secretary general has any business getting in there.''
But watch for him -- and the United Nations -- to re-emerge after any Iraq conflict, both in reviving that country and in dealing with a world full of other problems, said former Canadian U.N. ambassador David Malone.
These authorities on the U.N. system spoke as the Security Council powers remained deadlocked over Iraq, and the Bush administration prepared for war.
The U.N. charter calls the secretary-general the world body's ''chief administrative officer.'' Its holders have also used the office's prestige, however, to intervene on behalf of peace -- both directly, as in Dag Hammarskjold's efforts in embattled Congo, where he died in a plane crash in 1961, or through special envoys.
But a dispute among his bosses in the Security Council is not fertile ground for peacemaking by the secretary-general.
Annan has not always stood by mutely as the U.S.-Iraq showdown intensified. He spoke forcefully last summer urging Washington to follow the U.N. route in dealing with Iraqi disarmament, and again last week in warning the United States it would violate the U.N. charter if it attacked Iraq without council sanction.
But the secretary-general has not taken the lead publicly in searching for a peaceful way out of the Security Council standoff, or in rallying world opinion against war.
''The only thing he could be doing now is quiet diplomacy,'' Krasno said. ''He may be doing that. He wouldn't want anyone to know.''
Annan has met individually with each ambassador from the 15-nation council, and has worked the phones, including in repeated conversations with President Bush.
But he has not publicly championed any compromise proposals, or offered to fly to Baghdad to deal with Iraq's leaders, or trekked to the White House to make an 11th-hour appeal for peace.
The low profile may stem in part from Annan's bad experiences on the Iraq question.
In 1998, he traveled to Baghdad, to broker a deal with Saddam Hussein allowing U.N. arms inspectors into presidential palaces. Within months, however, that deal collapsed, the inspectors were withdrawn, and U.S. and British warplanes bombed Iraq for four days. Annan was excoriated by some in Washington as an appeaser.
''He really put himself on the line in that instance,'' Krasno said. ''People jumped on him.''
Urquhart, a biographer of Hammarskjold, considered by many the most effective secretary-general, said the United Nations must be viewed as ''an institution, a vehicle'' to be used by governments, not a power unto itself.
''And it's a vehicle that will be very useful in the aftermath of any Iraq conflict.''
Malone, head of the International Peace Academy, a New York research institute, also said the profile of Annan and the world body will rise in such an aftermath.
First of all, the former ambassador pointed out, the secretary-general was not meant to be a central player in Iraq disarmament. Under November's Resolution 1441, which established the new inspections regime in Iraq, the inspectors report directly to the Security Council, not to Annan.
''Now that Security Council diplomacy has failed, and the inspectors become irrelevant,'' Malone said, ''it opens up an important role again for the secretary-general in arguing that the U.N. can and should assist with the emergence of a democratic Iraq, led by Iraqis, and in reminding governments that both the Security Council and the broader U.N. system cater to many issues beyond Iraq.''
Charles J. Hanley has reported on international affairs for The Associated Press since 1976.
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