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Kofi Annan was elected in December 1996 to replace the Egyptian Boutros Boutros Ghali as secretary general of the United Nations. Annan, from Ghana, is the seventh person to serve in this top UN post and the first from a black African country. He is also the first secretary general to have risen through the ranks of the UN's diplomatic corps.

In his first address after being elected secretary general, Annan urged the General Assembly to "embark on a time of healing; a healing of fractures and frictions between member states and this organization." He also stressed the need to improve the organization's economic condition and bolster its moral authority.

One of the greatest challenges facing the UN, he added, was to improve its relations with the United States. But six years later, the war in Iraq brought relations between the UN and U.S. to a new low point - the lack of trust between the international organization and its No.1 member was even worse than during the Cold War. Annan declared that any military action that did not receive the approval of the Security Council would be considered illegitimate. It's interesting to recall that France, which led the campaign in the UN against the American-led war in Iraq, was the principal opponent of Annan's candidacy for secretary general.

Annan, 65, who earned a degree in management from MIT, was considered an "American" candidate (in contrast to the Francophile Ghali) and his election was seen as a victory for former secretary of state Madeleine Albright.

During Annan's 30-year career at the UN, he served in a number of senior positions. In 1993, he was appointed under secretary general for peacekeeping operations. Two years earlier, he was given the special assignment of facilitating the repatriation of over 900 international staff and citizens of Western countries from Iraq.

The difficulties Annan encountered in mediating the Cyprus dispute reflects the depreciated status of the UN and its secretary general. Of 28 armed conflicts in recent years, the UN achieved a measure of success in only three. Hopes that the UN's new baby - the road map - will help improve its record are also starting to disappear amid the new round of terror attacks and assassinations.

In any case, the U.S. has no intentions of assigning a significant role to the other three Quartet members (the UN, European Union and Russia) in implementing the road map. The U.S. is not missing any opportunity to get back at the UN for forcing it to grovel before marginal members of the Security Council, like Angola and Guinea, in its unsuccessful effort to win an international stamp of approval for its Iraq campaign. Republican senators are planning to cut U.S. allocation for the UN, which comprises some 22 percent of the international organization's annual budget of over $2.5 billion.

On the other hand, the failure of the American forces in Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction must be bringing back some color to the cheeks of UN officials, though they would be loath to admit this of course.

The mother of Annan's Swedish wife Nane was the stepsister of Raul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved many Jews during the Holocaust.