A picture caption yesterday incorrectly identified Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Abdul Amir Anbari, as U.S. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering (Published 2/16/91)

UNITED NATIONS, FEB. 14 -- U.N. Security Council debate on the Persian Gulf War began today amid indications that the U.S. move to keep the discussion behind closed doors had averted the threat of a divisive confrontation with anti-American overtones.

Prodded by the United States and its allies, the 15-member council voted Wednesday to meet in private session for the first time in 15 years. That blocked countries critical of the U.S.-led military effort to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait from using television coverage of the debate to create the impression that the United Nations is divided on the use of force to end the crisis.

Twenty-nine U.N. member-nations have said they will present their views during the debate, which could extend into next week. A printed record of each day's proceedings is to be published the following day, but proponents of the closed sessions believe these will lack the emotional and perhaps tendentious impact that supporters of live television coverage had hoped for.

In addition, U.N. sources said they expect most of the speeches to be tilted heavily toward support of the United States and of Security Council resolutions demanding that Iraq end its six-month-old occupation of neighboring Kuwait. Yemen and Cuba, the only two current Security Council members who have harshly criticized U.S. actions in the gulf, said they will not speak during the debate as a protest against the decision to bar the press. The Maghreb Federation, made up of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia, which also had sought a public meeting, took the same position.

As a result, U.N. sources said, there seems little chance that these nations will be able to further their argument that excessive force is being used against Iraq and that there should be a cease-fire while new efforts are undertaken to achieve a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

At the close of the opening session tonight, U.S. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering told reporters: "Only one important question was asked by several delegates of the Iraqi delegate -- 'When are we going to hear from your government about the withdrawal from Kuwait?' "

Prior to Wednesday's vote to close debate to the public, Pickering made clear Washington's concern that the broadcasting of such arguments to Baghdad would be used by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to tell his people that the United Nations is tiring of the struggle and will abandon it if Iraq holds firm.

U.S. officials also were known to be worried that in an open debate, proponents of a cease-fire would dwell at length on Wednesday's U.S. bombing attack on Baghdad that Iraq claims left more than 400 civilians dead. The officials expressed concern that some speakers would try to use the incident to rekindle anti-war sentiment in the United States and Europe and to foster the notion that the United States places little value on the lives of people in the Third World.

One of the first to speak in the debate, Ambassador Li Daoyu of China, made public his statement tonight, and it appeared to be consistent with the long-standing position of his country, which favors diplomacy to end the crisis and which abstained from the Nov. 29 Security Council vote authorizing force against Iraq.

Li's statement outlined a proposal for Iraq first to "signify that it will withdraw its troops from Kuwait immediately" and -- after the parties concerned agree to seek a peaceful solution -- for hostilities then to cease and foreign military forces to withdraw from the gulf region. The United States has rejected similar proposals in the past, arguing that Iraq must actually begin removing troops from Kuwait before hostilities are halted.

Meanwhile, in an apparent attempt to discredit U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, Iraqi officials charged him with "incompetent" and "criminal" behavior in failing to prevent the war against Iraq. Perez de Cuellar replied: "The secretary general is the least aggressive and the least important of all their enemies. I don't pay attention at all to their insults."

Perez de Cuellar also announced that a joint mission of the World Health Organization and the U.N. Children's Fund will go to Baghdad on Saturday to distribute $600,000 worth of emergency medical supplies for Iraqi children and mothers. Such supplies are exempt from the embargo imposed on Iraq by the Security Council last August.