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U.S. truancy in paying dues is creating a standoff in U.N.

Even the most free-spending diplomats at the United Nations were shocked to learn recently that they had paid $151,200 to rent a bomb-sniffing dog.

None question the need for security at U.N. headquarters in New York, targeted on more than one occasion by Islamic terrorists, but at $60 an hour the dog's annual salary equals that of an undersecretary-general.Costa Rican Ambassador Nazareth Incera, head of the General Assembly's "watchdog" administrative and budgetary committee, was indignant up to a point. "For that kind of money we could have two dogs," she complained.

The U.N.'s extravagant ways have long enraged Congress, which is one of the reasons our country has been in arrears on its U.N. dues for the past 13 years. Sen. Jesse Helms cas it a "bloated and dysfunctional organization."

Another reason is the unfair dues structure, designed 50 years ago when the Global economic picture was vastly different than it is today. The United States is assessed 25 percent of the regular U.N. budget and 31 percent of peacekeeping costs while other wealthy nations such as Japan, Germany and the Arab oil producers get away with paying a pittance.

For several years now Washington has unilaterally cut its contribution, giving rise to another dispute about how much it is we really owe. The United Nations says $1.6 billion, our government says $1 billion. Either way, we stand to lose our General Assembly voting rights if we don't pay at east $250 million of the debt by the end of this year.

Even Helms agrees that can't be allowed to happen. He has written a bill that would pay the bulk of our arrears $819 million over three years and forgive $107 million in debt that the United Nations owes the United States. However, it comes with strings attached.

The United Nations must reapportion dues to lower the U.S. contribution, something the 185-member General Assembly has been loath to do, and implement other reforms.

The Senate approved the bill by a 98-1 vote Tuesday. Maryland Democrat Paul Sarbanes was the sole dissenter, not because he didn't want to pay the debt but because he didn't want any conditions attached.

But the House of Representatives is bound to attach even more conditions when it debates its version of the bill later this summer.

In his book "Unvanquished: A U.S.-U.N. Saga," former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is savagely critical of American lawmakers for sabotaging U.S. foreign policy for domestic political gain. Boutros-Ghali's successor, Kofi Annan, is more diplomatic but he too points out that the U.S. refusal to pay its U.N. bills "offends friends and foes alike."

And it does make it more difficut for Washington to garner international support when it does go to war abroad, as it did in Kosovo.

Although the peacekeepers there are under NATO command, they must cooperate with a civilian administration under the aegis of the United Nations.

And many U.N. members are tired of the U.S. argument that since Americans did most of the fighting -- or, in this case, flying -- they should not have to bear the costs of keeping the peace.

That will be expensive. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program are spending $838,000 a day feeding returning refugees.

Holger Jensen is international editor of the Denver Rocky Mountain News