updated 12/16/2003 4:16:57 AM ET 2003-12-16T09:16:57

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed hope Monday that Saddam Hussein’s capture will accelerate reconciliation among Iraqis, but he said the United Nations could not support bringing the ex-dictator before a tribunal that might sentence him to death.

The capture “is a positive development because Saddam Hussein has cast a rather long shadow over developments and over the transition process,” Annan said. “With his capture, that shadow has been removed.”

Annan stressed that any trial for Saddam must meet international norms and standards and he reiterated the United Nations’ longstanding opposition to the death penalty in any U.N.-sanctioned tribunal. “As secretary-general, as the U.N., as an organization, we are not going to now turn around and support the death penalty,” he said.

The secretary-general said he had not studied the Iraqi Governing Council’s plans for a court to try members of Saddam’s regime so he couldn’t say whether it would meet international standards. If it doesn’t, he said, the Iraqis could consider asking for outside help.

At a meeting Tuesday, the Security Council is expected to discuss the timetable that the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-led coalition agreed to on Nov. 15 for a handover of power to a provisional government in June and general elections by the end of 2005.

Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari is expected to present the calendar at a public session and then answer questions at a closed-door meeting. Annan is expected to present the report he issued last week saying Iraq is still too dangerous to reopen the United Nations’ Baghdad office, which was closed in October after two bombings and a surge in violence.

Opportunity for reconciliation?
While the Security Council was deeply divided over the U.S.-led war that toppled Saddam’s regime, many members saw his capture on Saturday as an opportunity to promote reconciliation among Iraq’s disparate ethnic and political groups and get the program for Iraq’s self-government moving, hopefully with a major U.N. role.

U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said the United States believes it would be “most appropriate” following Saddam’s capture for council members, either individually or collectively, to support Iraq’s economic reconstruction, political evolution, and efforts to stabilize the security situation.

“We certainly hope that his capture will contribute to the promotion of stability and the acceleration of the political process and also hopefully the halting of attacks on the Iraqi people,” Negroponte said. “It encourages us to want to persist in this effort to root out these elements that are resisting the forces of freedom in Iraq.”

U.N. presses for quick transition
Several Security Council ambassadors including Chile’s Heraldo Munoz went further, supporting a speedier handover of power from the U.S.-led coalition to Iraqis now that Saddam no longer poses a threat.

Annan said he couldn’t say “categorically” whether Saddam’s capture could accelerate the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty — but he said he believes “the key” to decreasing violence is for Iraqis to take control of the country.

“I think once the (U.S. and British) occupation has ended, we should see a decrease in violence,” he said.

Annan expressed hope that Saddam’s arrest “will help us move ahead with the transition period and also accelerate the process of reconciliation and attempts to establish a transitional Iraqi government that is inclusive and transparent.”

He spoke to reporters before a private meeting with Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s former U.N. ambassador, who is now the top British representative in Iraq.

Diplomats said Annan indicated at the meeting that the United Nations has no plans to get involved politically in Iraq until after the occupation ends in June 2004.

“I think there’s a huge role for the United Nations to play in the transitional period itself,” Greenstock said after the meeting. “The important year for this whole process is 2005 when the direct elections for a constitutional convention and later for a government take place.”

But Greenstock indicated that the United Nations needs to help prepare for elections on the ground, not from outside the country as Annan is planning.

Whether the handover of power can be speeded up remains to be seen, the British envoy said.

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