US president warns that the ‘work ahead is demanding’ in the run-up to Iraq’s first elections

US President Bush and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan duelled diplomatically at the UN Security Council on 21 September, as the American leader delivered his annual address to the assembly. Present to hear him was Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, visiting the US after a visit to the UK, and reiterating a tough message towards insurgents. However, as officials pontificated eyes were firmly fixed on a particularly brutal hostage drama at home.

Bush’s speech focused more on generalities than on the specifics of the war in Iraq, as he conveyed a familiar message that spreading democracy was the best means of defeating terrorism. But, despite the increasing violence, which has seen more than 300 people – most of them Iraqis – killed since the beginning of September, the president maintained that Iraq was better off since the US-led invasion. ‘We can expect terrorist attacks to escalate as Afghanistan and Iraq approach national elections,’ Bush warned. ‘The work ahead is demanding, but these difficulties will not shake our conviction that the future of Afghanistan and Iraq is a future of liberty.’

The president also defended the legitimacy of the toppling of Saddam Hussein. ‘The Security Council promised serious consequences for his defiance,’ he said. ‘And the commitments we make must have meaning.’ The justification was timely. Barely half an hour beforehand, Annan obliquely criticised the decision to go to war, while referring to the element of the post-war peacekeeping the US would most like to forget – the abuse by American soldiers of Iraqi prisoners at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib gaol. ‘Those who seek to bestow legitimacy must embody it themselves, and those who invoke international law must themselves submit to it,’ he told delegates. Speaking of the violence sweeping through Iraq, Annan said: ‘At the same time, we have seen Iraqi prisoners disgracefully abused.’ The secretary-general hit the headlines a week earlier for a more candid assessment of the war, made in an interview with the UK’s BBC News, in which he declared the invasion illegal.

In New York to hear both points of view was Allawi, who is delivering a hard line on security, in spite of the lack of control the fledgling new police force and army exercise over large swathes of the country. In the latest high-profile hostage-taking incident, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid & Jihad group seized two Americans and one Briton from a house in the wealthy Al-Mansour district of Baghdad, demanding the release of all women prisoners from Iraqi gaols. On 20 September, one of the Americans was gruesomely beheaded in a videotape posted on an Islamist website. The next day, the group claimed to have decapitated the second American. Only two Iraqi women are being detained, both accused of involvement in Saddam Hussein’s banned weapons programme. Reports emerged on 21 September that one of the women, Rihab Rashid Taha, would be released, but these were denied by the interim government the following day. As MEED went to press, the fate of the UK hostage, Kenneth Bigley, lay in the balance.