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World Leaders Gather for UN General Assembly


President Bush heads a long list of world leaders and government ministers gathering in New York this week for the annual U.N. General Assembly debate. This year's event takes on added significance, with negotiations on the sidelines to determine who will be the world body's next secretary-general.

The debate begins Tuesday, and over seven days, more than 80 heads of state and government will address the assembly. President Bush will speak at the opening session, along with the leaders of France, Finland, Poland, South Africa, Pakistan and Brazil.

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, is slated to speak late in the day, but he will not cross paths with Mr. Bush.

The Assembly debate has become an occasion for bilateral and group meetings among world leaders, as well as for forums and conferences. President Bush's schedule includes a one-on-one chat with Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and private meetings with several of his fellow heads of state.

Secretary General Annan told reporters he expects the General Assembly debate to touch every pressing global issue.

"I think Lebanon and the broader Middle East, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, I suspect Kosovo would also come high on the agenda. And of course, other issues we are dealing with, the fight against HIV and some others will continue. But, I think, with the heads of state here, there will be some key issues that we will deal with, and, I think, for the next couple of months, it should keep us busy," he said.

For Mr. Annan, those next couple of months will take him close to the end of his term as secretary-general. He completes 10 years in office in December, and the race to succeed him is moving into its final stages.

A host of announced candidates for the job have been actively campaigning, and all are expected to be in New York to press their cases.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon has emerged as the early frontrunner. He has finished first in two preliminary polls among the 15 members of the Security Council. But that is no guarantee of success.

In the most recent poll, he received 14 votes of encouragement. But he also received one vote of discouragement. Under rules of the balloting, there is no way to know whether that negative vote may have come from one of the five permanent Council members, who have veto power over the selection.

China's U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya reminded reporters that these preliminary polls can be misleading.

"Yesterday, one candidate got more votes than the others. But there is one vote of discouragement. Where it comes from is very important," he said.

The other four candidates received more votes of discouragement in the poll. Indian novelist and U.N. Undersecretary-General for Public Information Shashi Tharoor, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai and Sri Lankan diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala all received three "discourages". A late entry into the race, Jordan's U.N. ambassador, Prince Zeid Raad Al-Hussein, received four.

But the results did not appear to deter any of the candidates. None withdrew from the race. Instead, more hopefuls are entering.

Until now, all announced candidates have been Asian men, since U.N. tradition holds that it is Asia's turn to lead the world body. But Friday, the three Baltic states nominated Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. She becomes the first non-Asian and the first woman candidate, at a time when key decision-makers are speaking openly of their desire to see a woman in the job.

Veteran U.N. watcher and Columbia University Professor Edward Luck says there are likely to be more nominations as the selection process moves forward.

"The addition of one or two more names is probably a good thing, and I would assume we'll have a few more before we're finished. Every name has plusses and minuses, and I think it's sort of 50-50 as to whether the candidate will come from this group, or a name that has yet to be voiced," said Luck.

Luck says that, since by tradition it is Asia's turn, the final choice will probably come down to whoever is acceptable to China and the United States.

U.S. diplomats have been careful not to reveal which candidate they might support. But in a VOA interview, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Kristen Silverberg says the United States would like to see someone with a mix of strong administrative experience, as well as diplomatic skills.

"A secretary-general can play an important role in helping to bridge differences and broker agreements. But I think today it's important to keep in mind that the U.N. is a complicated operational organization," said Silverberg. "So, you really need somebody who's going to focus on how the place is managed. So, we think it's not enough to just be an effective politician or diplomat. You really have to be somebody, who can focus on these operational, on-the-ground issues. So, we really would like someone who could do both."

Ambassadors of the permanent five Security Council members say they have agreed to speed up the selection process. They are hoping for a smooth transition from Secretary-General Annan to his successor.

U.S. and Chinese diplomats say they remain hopeful that a final decision may come as early as September 28, the day after the conclusion of the General Assembly debate. Another poll of Security Council members is scheduled for that day, and the Council president for September, Greek Ambassador Adamantios Vassilakis, has said it could be decisive.

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