updated 11/16/2004 3:26:54 AM ET 2004-11-16T08:26:54

Secretary-General Kofi Annan, under fire in Washington over the U.N. role in Iraq, said that the United States and the United Nations have the greatest impact on global issues when they work together.

“I think the relationship is important,” Annan told reporters Monday. “The U.S. is important for the U.N., and I hope the U.N. is also important for them.”

Relations between President George W. Bush’s administration and the 191-nation world body plummeted over the U.N. Security Council’s refusal to authorize the U.S.-led war against Iraq. At the height of the debate over the war, U.S. officials warned that the United Nations was destined for the dustbin of history and the fate of the League of Nations.

Friction with Washington
After the war, Annan pressed for the international community to put aside its divisions and join forces to help build a peaceful, stable, democratic Iraq. But his claim in September that the war was “illegal,” his refusal to send a large team to help with January’s election, and his recent warning that an all-out assault on Fallujah could undermine the election and further alienate Iraqis, have angered U.S. officials.

At the same time, Annan has taken the lion’s share of the blame for alleged corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program which was launched in 1996 by the Security Council to help Iraqis cope with sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Congressional investigators estimated Monday that Saddam’s government raised more than $21.3 billion in illegal revenue over a decade by subverting sanctions and the oil-for-food program.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said Monday that Annan feels he has been “misjudged by certain media” who fail to recognize the U.N. role in setting up Iraq’s interim government, its training of thousands of electoral personnel outside Iraq, and its role in setting up an Independent Electoral Commission and the framework for elections.

“What he’s been saying ever since the divisive issue of the war in Iraq was behind us (was) that we now need to look forward, that an unstable Iraq is in nobody’s interest. And he’s trying to get everyone to work together to stabilize Iraq, and therefore the region,” Eckhard said.

Defending Annan
The U.N. spokesman also insisted that Annan is “not being obstructionist” in dealing with U.S. Congressional requests for information about the oil-for-food humanitarian program. “He wants to help, but there are inherent limits to what he can do as the head of an organization with 191 member states,” Eckhard said.

Annan spoke of the U.S.-U.N. relationship in paying tribute to Secretary of State Colin Powell following his resignation, calling him “a wonderful human being and a great diplomat” as well as “a good friend.”

The secretary-general said he and Powell “worked very well” on a range of issues from the roadmap to Middle East peace to Iraq, Ivory Coast and Haiti. He said he was looking forward “to a constructive and collaborative relationship” with the Bush administration in its second term and the new secretary of state.

“It is when the U.S. and the U.N. work together that we really have an effective impact on the issues that we are dealing with,” Annan told reporters.

In fact, the United States and the United Nations are currently working together to try to end the 21-year war between the Sudanese government and southern rebels, and to promote a separate political settlement between the government and rebels in the western Darfur region.

At the initiative of U.S. Ambassador John Danforth, the Security Council is heading to Nairobi, Kenya , where it will hold meetings on Thursday and Friday to press the Sudanese parties to make peace. With U.S. support, the council is also working to promote political settlements in Ivory Coast, central Africa and Haiti.

Annan also has announced plans to increase the size of the U.N. election team in Iraq, though the number is expected to be very modest, and far below the hundreds that Washington would like to help with voting. Currently, only 35 U.N. international staffers are allowed in Iraq because of the violence and insecurity.

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