UNITED NATIONS, FEB. 13 -- The United States and its allies tonight blocked calls for a public Security Council debate on the Persian Gulf War that is expected to include criticism of the massive bombing of Iraq and calls for a cease-fire.
Instead, the 15-nation council voted, 9 to 2 with four abstentions, to conduct the debate in private session beginning Thursday. The vote assuaged fears that the debate could turn into an anti-U.S. propaganda show covered live on television.
The Bush administration's effort to contain criticism at the United Nations was also evident in an unusual intelligence briefing given Wednesday to U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar. The briefing, intended to demonstrate the efforts the United States has taken to limit civilian casualties in Iraq, included examples of satellite reconnaissance imagery, Washington Post correspondent R. Jeffrey Smith reported from Washington.
The two countries opposing a private council session were Yemen and Cuba, both fierce critics of U.S. conduct of the war. China, India, Ecuador and Zimbabwe abstained in deference to Third World sensibilities about the war.
Although the debate, during which more than 60 countries are expected to speak, will be private, the full record of the proceedings will be made public as soon as the debate ends, and individual countries will be free to disclose their positions.
However, the United States and its allies have insisted that the presence of television cameras during the debate could turn it into a forum for divisive propaganda pitting the Third World against the industrial powers, and result in prolonging the war.
"We must ensure that the presence of the media does not influence and even distort the course of the debate," said British Ambassador David Hannay, who introduced the motion for a closed meeting.
U.S. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering charged that "Iraq is fighting a major campaign to discredit the council, its resolutions and the U.N." and therefore, "we must not send signals which Iraq will misuse and misperceive that the council is not firm in its decisions and is not intent on seeing them implemented."
While insisting that the United States wants "a serious and constructive discussion," Pickering said it must be "free from the glare of instantaneous publicity and misinterpretation and misuse."
The repeated emphasis that he and U.S. allies put on barring the media led Cuban Ambassador Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada to remark that "the United States is turning the Security Council into a Pentagon press pool."
The decision to hold a private session -- only the fourth in U.N. history -- was prompted by a demand from Yemen and the Maghreb Federation, made up of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia, for a public session. They want to explore whether the U.S.-led military coalition is using excessive force to get Iraq out of Kuwait and whether all avenues for a diplomatic solution are being pursued.
"Are we going to allow a Third World country to be destroyed by massive force that lacks all semblance of proportionality?" Yemeni Ambassador Abdalla Saleh Ashtal asked.
He cited the U.S. bombing attack today that killed scores and perhaps hundreds of Iraqi civilians in what Baghdad said was an air raid shelter but what Washington described as a military command post. "No human being on either side of this conflict can help but be disgusted at such actions which target the weak, the innocent and the helpless," he said.
Earlier, a spokesman for Perez de Cuellar said he "has learned with profound regret" about the bombing in Baghdad. The spokesman added on Perez de Cuellar's behalf, "while he does not have full details about the circumstances of this tragic incident, he is nonetheless dismayed by the magnitude of the casualties. He deplores the loss of civilian life."
In reply, Pickering said, "Despite the propaganda charges, never in history have military forces been engaged in battle with so much concern for the limitation of damage to the civilian population. . . . This often means increased risk to our own forces, a cost we are willing to bear."
He added that the coalition's conduct "is in stark contrast to Iraq's own policy of deliberately targeting civilian populations for missile terror attacks" and "moving military equipment and facilities into civilian areas with the purpose of using innocent Iraqi civilians and their homes as shields against attack."