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)