Syria to cast shadow over U.N. meeting amid Iran hopes

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A slew of international crises will take center stage this week as the U.N. General Assembly gathers in New York - Syria's bloody civil war, the possible appearance of Sudan's president despite an arrest warrant for alleged genocide, and outrage over a massive U.S. cyberspying program.

There are also some hopes for good news. Many of the 193 U.N. member states are looking for signs of a thaw in relations between arch-enemies Iran and the United States.

U.S. officials say a meeting is possible between President Barack Obama and Iran's newly elected centrist President Hassan Rouhani, and if it happens, it would be the first meeting of U.S. and Iranian government heads since before the 1979 revolution. That would mark a big change from the annual rants in recent years against Israel and the United States by Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the top agenda item will be Syria's 2-1/2-year civil war, which the United Nations says has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions, who have been forced to flee the country.

No one expects a breakthrough in the crisis this week, though there may be approval of a U.N. resolution backing a U.S.-Russian plan to rid Syria of chemical arms.

"Syria is the biggest peace, security and humanitarian challenge we face," Ban told reporters last week. "Let us be clear - the use of chemical weapons in Syria is only the tip of the iceberg."

"The suffering in Syria must end," he said.

The resolution to be considered by the U.N. Security Council would back the U.S.-Russian plan to remove Syria's chemical weapons by June 2014 to avoid U.S. air strikes. That plan was agreed to as U.N. inspectors confirmed sarin nerve gas was used in an August 21 attack near Damascus that killed over 1,400 people, many of them children, according to U.S. estimates.

Syria's ally Russia and the United States continue to disagree sharply on how to end the war, with Moscow blaming the rebels for chemical attacks and blocking peace talks, and Western powers blaming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Washington is still struggling to persuade Moscow not to veto another Syria resolution amid Russian objections to any threat of force against Assad's government.

ISRAEL TO WARN ABOUT IRAN

In his fifth General Assembly speech, Obama will on Tuesday touch on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, including Syria, the White House has said.

Two years ago, the fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace process was the focus of the General Assembly. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas received a standing ovation as he waved his application for full U.N. membership, doomed due to U.S. opposition, for an independent Palestinian state.

The White House said Obama plans to meet with Abbas in New York. He will also meet in Washington on September 30 with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is listed as the last General Assembly speaker on October 1.

Netanyahu's speech last year, in which he held up a cartoonish picture of a bomb to illustrate how close Iran is to acquiring nuclear arms, was the high point of the 2012 General Assembly. He illustrated a "red line" that Tehran will not be permitted to cross without invoking Israeli military action - sufficient medium-enriched uranium for a single atomic bomb.

Israel is suspicious of Rouhani's overtures to the United States and Europe and worries that some Western countries may be eager to relax the crippling sanctions they have imposed on Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment. Netanyahu, U.N. diplomats say, intends to offer new warnings about Iran this year.

The General Assembly, which according to Ban will be attended by at least 131 heads of state or government and around 60 foreign ministers, will meet in a temporary container-like building due to the renovation of its iconic hall. The narrow hallways and cramped rooms at the U.N. North Lawn Building could facilitate a spontaneous meeting between Obama and Rouhani.

Rouhani has cast himself as a peacemaker who shuns confrontation, a sharp contrast to his predecessor Ahmadinejad. For the last eight years, Ahmadinejad was the main draw at the General Assembly, grabbing headlines as he doubted the Holocaust, suggested Israel should not exist and hinted that the U.S. government orchestrated the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff is the first leader to take the podium when the annual General Debate opens on Tuesday. Her speech comes a week after she canceled a state visit to the United States because of revelations that Washington spied on her personal communications and those of other Brazilians.

"I don't think Rousseff is going to pull her punches when she opens the General Assembly," a European U.N. ambassador told Reuters. "And she's not alone in being angry about the NSA (National Security Agency) spying program."

It is not clear if Obama, who is the second speaker, will respond to any criticism from Rousseff.

With Ahmadinejad absent, the most controversial figure to appear may be Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is wanted by The Hague-based International Criminal Court for suspected genocide and other alleged crimes against humanity in Sudan's Darfur region.

Bashir said on Sunday he planned to attend and had already booked a hotel in New York. He is slated to speak on Thursday afternoon.

Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has described Bashir's visa request as "deplorable." However, the United States is not a member of the ICC, so U.S. authorities are not legally bound to arrest Bashir. The United States also has a 1947 agreement with the U.N. allowing leaders of all member states - friend or foe - to attend U.N. events.

It would not be the first time a controversial figure disliked by the U.S. government appeared. Along with Ahmadinejad, former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi proved controversial with his rambling 1-1/2-hour speech against the West in 2009. Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez called President George W. Bush "the devil" in 2006.

In 1974, Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, wore a holster as he stood at the podium and denounced Zionism. Cuban leader Fidel Castro blasted U.S. imperialism in a four-hour speech in 1960, the longest General Assembly address to date. (Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Eric Walsh)

Matches

MORE TOP STORIES TODAY

On Now: Delhi vs Kolkata

On Now: Delhi vs Kolkata

Unchanged Kolkata bat, Delhi still without Pietersen More »

AB, Parthiv seal Bangalore's second win

AB, Parthiv seal Bangalore's second win

Royal Challengers overcame a stutter to cruise to the small target they were set by Mumbai Indians. More »

Glenn Maxwell carves his parallel universe

Glenn Maxwell carves his parallel universe

Glenn Maxwell seems to project an icy disdain when at the crease. Match situations rarely faze him and the bubble in which he plays excludes everyone … More »

No way back for Pietersen: ECB

No way back for Pietersen: ECB

Kevin Pietersen's hopes of reviving his international career appeared to end Saturday when ECB managing director Paul Downton said there was 'no way back'… More »

[REWIND] The world record that nearly wasn't

[REWIND] The world record that nearly wasn't

Twenty years ago this week, Brian Lara became Test cricket's highest scorer, but he almost didn't make it. More »

Moores gets second stint as England coach

Moores gets second stint as England coach

In a two-year spell from 2007 to 2009, the 51-year-old Moores led England in seven Test series. More »

BCCI is not anybody’s property — Dalmiya

BCCI is not anybody’s property — Dalmiya

Dalmiya feels that Srinivasan’s ‘power hungry’ attitude isn’t helping matters. More »

Tough for bowlers: Saeed Ajmal

Tough for bowlers: Saeed Ajmal

The 36-year-old believes the T20 format and rule changes in 50-over matches have made a real difference. More »

KP ridicules idea of day-night Tests

KP ridicules idea of day-night Tests

Kevin Pietersen has ridiculed the idea of day-night Test cricket, saying the game would be so different to proper Test cricket that we will need a whole… More »

Maxwell blitz takes Punjab home

Maxwell blitz takes Punjab home

The Kings XI batsman blasted a 43-ball 95 to help his team pull off a massive chase against Chennai Super Kings. More »

Rajasthan edge low-scoring thriller

Rajasthan edge low-scoring thriller

The bowlers restricted Hyderabad to 133 for 6 before Rahane and Binny took Rajasthan over the line. More »

BCCI members want independent probe

BCCI members want independent probe

The board members are realising after the Supreme Court's observations that something has to be done — IS Bindra More »

'BCCI lacks leaders to take on Srini'

'BCCI lacks leaders to take on Srini'

Two former BCCI presidents, Shashank Manohar and Jagmohan Dalmiya, have reacted strongly to the news of the BCCI calling an emergent meeting on Sunday… More »

Delhi look for first points against confident Kolkata

Delhi look for first points against confident Kolkata

Preview — The threat of Sunil Narine looms large again. More »

Bangalore vs Mumbai: A battle of the big-hitters

Bangalore vs Mumbai: A battle of the big-hitters

Preview — Given the firepower in both line-ups, Dubai crowd may see another high-scorer More »

Yuvraj tees off to Sharjah's delight

Yuvraj tees off to Sharjah's delight

Yuvraj Singh was hardly convincing to begin with against Delhi, but a big dose of crowd support and a helping of poor bowling meant he had the opportunity… More »

Stressed Trott stands down again

Stressed Trott stands down again

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) on Friday confirmed that batsman Jonathan Trott is to take another break from all cricket with immediate eff… More »

PCB starts another coach hunt

PCB starts another coach hunt

The PCB has decided to not extend the contracts of head coach Moin Khan, fielding coach Shoaib Mohammad and batting consultant Zaheer Abbas, and has invited… More »

Fiery star Stokes bids to curb his temper

Fiery star Stokes bids to curb his temper

England all-rounder Ben Stokes admits he must keep his anger under control if he is to end his international exile. More »

Bangalore's arsenal blazes to victory

Bangalore's arsenal blazes to victory

Yuvraj Singh was back to his best in his first match for Royal Challengers Bangalore. More »

Pakistan cricketers face probe

Pakistan cricketers face probe

Pakistani cricket authorities have launched an investigation after a number of current international stars played in exhibition matches in the United States… More »

BCCI to meet before next court hearing

BCCI to meet before next court hearing

The BCCI will hold an emergent working committee meeting on April 20 to discuss the future course of action with regard to the Supreme Court hearing concerning… More »

Gavaskar wants a clean IPL

Gavaskar wants a clean IPL

"Integrity is non-negotiable..." says the BCCI's interim chief ahead of Season 7 of the tainted league. More »

Time for Chennai to enter familiar cocoon

Time for Chennai to enter familiar cocoon

Chennai have an emphatic 8-3 lead in the head-to-head with Punjab, with one game tied More »