UNITED NATIONS: Fears that the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear stand-off could provoke wider international conflict dominated the debate on Monday as world leaders gathered for the UN General Assembly.
The annual summit of the nations of the world was to begin on Tuesday, but the preliminary exchanges in New York quickly underlined the stark dangers facing the world community as several conflicts come to a head.
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad struck a defiant note, accusing Western powers of abusing international law and dismissing the threat of a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons program.
And UN and Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told the UN Security Council that Syria is sinking deeper into bloodshed, with the regime blaming its woes on foreign infiltrators and civilians facing growing food shortages.
Speaking to Iranian expatriates in New York, the Iranian leader dubbed his Israeli opponents "uncultured Zionists" and said that the Iranian people "had never paid any attention" to their threats, according to his website.
The United States and its allies believe Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb and hope economic sanctions will force Tehran to scale back its nuclear ambitions and open them to international scrutiny.
Absent a climb-down by Tehran, Israel has warned it might launch pre-emptive strikes against Iranian targets, plunging the Middle East into a whole new round of uncertainty with global economic and political consequences.
But Ahmadinejad arrived for his annual show-down on enemy territory in New York in a belligerent mood, declaring that the United States, Britain and France "violate the basic rights and freedoms of other nations."
He said that it was wrong for the five major powers to have a veto on the Security Council, which was why the body "has failed to establish justice and ensure sustainable peace and security in the world."
And he sought to link his charge of illegitimacy to the West's failure to prevent filmmakers and cartoonists from, in his view, committing "sacrilege against people's beliefs and sanctities."
There has been widespread outrage in the Muslim world this month following the release of a movie trailer made by a Christian extremist group in California and new French cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed.
Syria's civil war has also cast a pall over the biggest event in the United Nations calendar.
Brahimi's briefing underlined the scale and complexity of the Syrian crisis, with veto-wielding permanent Security Council members Russia and China still blocking Western efforts to build support for robust international action.
"There is no prospect for today or tomorrow to move forward," Brahimi told reporters after briefing the UN Security Council on his recent talks with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.
"There is no disagreement anywhere that the situation in Syria is extremely bad and getting worse, that it is a threat to the region and a threat to peace and security in the world," Brahimi said.
The envoy, who took over from Kofi Annan as international envoy earlier this month, also urged the divided 15-nation Security Council to come together in support of his mission and give him a strong mandate to press for peace.
"If I do not represent the entire council then I am nothing," Brahimi said.
He told the 15-nation council the Syrian government now claims there are thousands of foreign extremists in the country and is increasingly portraying the conflict as a "foreign conspiracy," envoys at the closed meeting told AFP.
Reporting on recent talks with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, the former Algerian foreign minister painted a grim picture of life for those caught up in an 18-month-old conflict in which activists say more than 29,000 have died.
Brahimi told the council that the torture of detainees has become "routine" and that people were now afraid to go to hospitals which were in the hands of government forces for fear of facing abuse or detention.