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US drops UN bid on war crime protection

Measure said lacking necessary support

UNITED NATIONS -- Facing global opposition fueled by the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, the United States dropped its attempt to renew a UN exemption shielding American troops from international prosecution for war crimes.

Yesterday's move raised concern that Washington might carry out its threat to shut down or stop participating in UN-authorized peacekeeping operations.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters that every request would be examined ''both in terms of voting for a peacekeeping mission" and providing Americans to participate. A key factor will be ''what the risk might be of prosecution by a court to which we're not party," he said.

While the United States won praise for not pushing for a vote that would have deeply divided the UN Security Council, the Bush administration suffered a defeat in its lengthy battle against the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal.

William Pace, head of the Coalition for an International Criminal Court, which represents more than 1,000 organizations supporting the tribunal, called the US decision ''a victory for international justice."

The court can prosecute cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed after it was established on July 1, 2002.

But it is a court of last resort and will step in only when countries are unwilling or unable to dispense justice themselves, a condition proponents say makes it highly unlikely an American would be prosecuted.

Washington has also signed bilateral agreements with 90 countries that bar any prosecution of American officials by the court.

The court's chief prosecutor announced its first investigation yesterday, of war crimes in Congo.

When the court was established -- the culmination of a campaign for a permanent war crimes tribunal that began with the Nuremberg trials after World War II -- Washington threatened to end its involvement in UN peacekeeping operations if it did not get an exemption for Americans.

The Bush administration argues that the court could be used for frivolous or politically motivated prosecutions of American troops.

After lengthy negotiations, the Security Council agreed to a one-year exemption, which was renewed a year ago. The court started operating last year.

The 94 countries that have ratified the 1998 Rome Treaty creating the court maintain it contains enough safeguards to prevent frivolous prosecutions and insist that nobody should be exempt.

Last month, the United States circulated a resolution that would have authorized a new one-year exemption after the current one expires Wednesday.

But it put off a vote to work on a resolution endorsing next week's handover of power in Iraq, which was unanimously adopted on June 8.

One council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington probably would have gotten the minimum nine ''yes" votes in the 15-member council if it had called for a vote immediately after introducing the resolution.

But over the past five weeks, the scandal over the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison has grown, and last week Secretary General Kofi Annan made a rare intervention into council affairs. He urged members to oppose the resolution, questioned the legality of an exemption, and warned against dividing the council.

Several council members said the prisoner abuse and Annan's opposition were factors in their refusal to back the original resolution and a last-minute US attempt at compromise that would have made this one-year exemption the final one.

France, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Chile, and China had said they would abstain on the original resolution, and Romania and Benin had indicated they were likely to join them.

When Spain and China -- key nations the United States needed to change their votes -- announced before yesterday's council meeting that they would not support the compromise, Washington knew the resolution would be defeated.

''We believe that our draft and its predecessors fairly meet the concerns of all. Not all council members agree, however," US deputy ambassador James Cunningham told reporters after informing the council of the decision.

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