UN in turmoil as France condemns raids

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AN ATMOSPHERE of shocked dismay descended upon United Nations headquarters last night as Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, conceded he had lost his months-long battle to stave off violence in the Gulf and avert the decision taken by Washington and London to strike Iraq with military force.

While holding back from condemning the strikes, Mr Annan declared: "This is a sad day for the United Nations and for the world ... It is also a sad day for me personally. Throughout this year I have done everything in my power to ensure peaceful compliance with the Security Council resolutions and so to avert the use of force."

His comments came as it became increasingly clear that the international coalition that came together in 1990 to punish Saddam Hussein for his invasion of Kuwait was starkly absent yesterday. The divisions were opening even within the European Union. In a sober statement, the French government last night disassociated itself from the military action. "France deplores the escalation which led to the American military strikes against Iraq and the grave human consequences which they could have for the Iraqi people."

In the Security Council, tempers also flared. Even before the strike, members traded recriminations about the report by Richard Butler, the chairman of the special commission for disarming Iraq, that triggered last night's action.

Sergei Lavrov, the ambassador of Russia, the one permanent member that has been steadfast in its friendship with Iraq, lashed out at Mr Butler. "It became quite bitter," one council source reported. "Lavrov questioned Butler's honesty and integrity."

China, which has also long opposed military action in the Gulf, was unusually outspoken too. The Chinese ambassador, Qin Huasun, said the Butler report did not "reflect the complete picture on the ground in Iraq".

Such was the atmosphere of futility in the council that at one point debate turned to in-house UN press leaks and how, in particular, some correspondentshad managed to see Mr Butler's report before it had been delivered to council members. Mr Annan was asked to launch an inquiry.

Much later last night, the council was intending to open a new meeting on the military strike, by then well under way. Attention was focused on Russia and rumours that it would table a resolution condemning the attacks.