Musical chairs at the UN – and the tune hasn't stopped

The General Assembly's seating plan is always politically sensitive – but never more so than now
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The Independent US

The seating plan of the UN General Assembly in New York is fixed in alphabetical order, starting with Afghanistan and ending with Zimbabwe. But each year, so that no country can complain about their relative position at the front or the back of the hall, the plan is rotated.

And as a result, each year the dynamics of the General Assembly shift. The delegates find themselves with new neighbours and new faces to greet. Yesterday, for the 56th session of the General Assembly, the most important meeting for at least a decade, the seats had been moved again.

Perhaps it was fitting, then, that the delegates from Afghanistan, all representatives of the ousted government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, were placed directly behind the United Kingdom team led by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. Just across the aisle, meanwhile, sat the US delegation, among them Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, and Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser.

It was hard to interpret the body language. Did, for instance, Mr Powell nod his quiet approval to the men from the Northern Alliance, grateful that their fighters had at last taken Mazar-i-Sharif? Did Mr Straw deliberately temper his greeting, thinking to himself, "We might want your help fighting the Taliban but we're not going to let you run Afghanistan?"

It is not just America's friends who sit in the assembly hall. At the front sat the teams from Iran and Iraq, Shi'ite and Ba'athist, sharing a bench but utterly apart.

In an interview published yesterday, the Iranian leader President Khatami, dismissed Osama bin Laden's call for all Islamic countries to join him, saying: "I don't believe that his message really resonates strongly in the Muslim world."

But did the team from a country that supports Hizbollah think, as Mr Bush declared, that all nations that support terror "are equally guilty of murder"? As much to the point, what were Mr Powell and Dr Rice thinking – America having blunted its criticism of Iran in exchange for its silent support for its military campaign?

Watching from the sidelines was Yasser Arafat, afforded only observer status and forced to sit alongside the teams from the Vatican and Malta.

Speaker after speaker talked about Palestine, of how there could only be peace in the Middle East once Mr Arafat's people had their own state. Even Mr Bush reiterated his support.

But the people who could have helped were not there. The Israeli delegation had warned in advance it would not be attending because it was the Sabbath.

And so Mr Arafat sat in the shadows, looking on, clapping politely, dreaming, no doubt, of a day when he too will be able to switch seats.