- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2006

NEW YORK — Washington’s options in Iraq are constrained by competing pressures from countries in the region for the U.S. to stay or to leave quickly, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday.

“The U.S. has found itself in a position where it cannot stay and it cannot leave,” he said at a press conference. “And if it has to leave, the timing has to be optimum and it has to be arranged in such a way that it does not lead to even greater disruption or violence.”

Pressed by reporters, he declined to offer suggestions. But in his first extended remarks since returning from a two-week, 11-country trip through the Middle East, Mr. Annan said most regional leaders felt the U.S. occupation of Iraq had harmed their countries.

“Honestly, most of the leaders I spoke to felt invasion of Iraq and its aftermath has been a real disaster for them. They feel it has destabilized the region,” Mr. Annan said.

“Actually, there were two schools,” he added. “Many leaders who felt the Americans should stay until the situation improves, and that having created the problem, [they] cannot walk away.

“Then you have another school, particularly in Iran, [where authorities believe] the presence of the U.S. is a problem and the U.S. should leave.”

The secretary-general said officials in Tehran told him that “if the U.S. were to decide to leave, they would help them leave.” The Iranians did not explain the comment, he said, “but they made it quite clear that the U.S. presence is a problem that must be withdrawn.”

The stay-or-go argument has been gathering steam in Washington, where lawmakers are grappling with whether or how to extricate more than 130,000 U.S. troops from an increasingly unpopular war. With November elections looming, politicians from both sides of the aisle are staking out positions for and against a withdrawal.

Iraqi authorities discovered 65 bodies in and around Baghdad yesterday, most of which had been bound and tortured. It was the latest evidence that organized death squads continue to operate in the capital, despite the redeployment of large numbers of American troops to the city.

Also yesterday, car bombings and mortar fire killed 32 persons and wounded 76, according to the Associated Press.

The United Nations has been asked by Iraqi and U.S. officials to take a larger role in the stabilization and rehabilitation of Iraq, a country that sits atop the second-largest oil reserve in the world.

At his press conference, Mr. Annan also praised donor nations and the often-divided U.N. Security Council for acting together to help bring peace and stability to Lebanon after Israel’s July invasion, which was prompted by the abduction by Hezbollah militants of two Israeli soldiers.

He also acknowledged frustration with Sudan’s refusal to permit an effective international peacekeeping force to enter the western Darfur region and stressed that Iran and the West must work quickly to restore some confidence before negotiations on nuclear uranium enrichment can go forward.

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