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GENEVA, Aug 2 (Reuters) - A visibly shaken Kofi Annan admitted defeat in his attempts to bring peace to Syria on Thursday, but - perhaps keen to protect his legacy from the taint of another genocide - laid the blame for the failure on the big powers that claim to back him.
Syria was the best chance for Annan, 74, to put to rest the failures of diplomacy in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Somalia and Iraq, which are likely to drown out the plaudits for his softly spoken mediation and efforts to eradicate poverty and AIDS that won him the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.
His voice cracking with emotion as he announced his resignation as peace envoy for Syria, the former U.N. secretary-general threw the blame back at the U.N. Security Council, whose veto-wielding members are the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain.
"You have to understand, as an Envoy, I can't want peace more than the protagonists, more than the Security Council or the international community, for that matter," he said.
"At a time when we need - when the Syrian people desperately need - action, there continues to be finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council."
Annan took the job in February, seeing it as "a sacred duty" to try to resolve the crisis. But he has said he was aware that he may have been brought in too late, or too early.
His peace efforts effectively fell apart after an April 12 ceasefire failed to hold, but U.N. Security Council members continued to proclaim that the peace plan he formulated was the only way forward, making him increasingly look like a figleaf for inaction.
"Even though many people dub it the 'Annan plan', it is the Security Council's plan. It was endorsed by a Security Council resolution, and we should be reminded of that, and I think the Council members should also remember that," he said.
Annan convened an "Action Group" on Syria in Geneva on June 30 and trumpeted the resulting agreement as a breakthrough, but it had no impact because the text had been stripped of any mention of "Chapter 7", a licence to use sanctions on Syria.
"It was a document with no teeth. It went to the Security Council and nothing happened. Russia and China maintained their positions," said one Arab diplomat who attended the meeting.
"You can bring the best in the world, but when there is a veto in the Security Council, we are getting nowhere."
Annan was brought up in an ethnically divided culture in his native Ghana, but one where dialogue was prized and outright conflict rare. It was a time of optimism and confidence as Ghana headed for independence from Britain.
"He's driven by the idea of 'don't think no', always looking for the best outcome," Fred Eckhard, Annan's spokesman during his time as secretary-general, told Reuters in June.
His reputation as a mediator was burnished by his success in halting a spiralling conflict in Kenya in 2007, when two rival claims to the presidency sparked ethnic massacres in which more than 1,200 died.
Annan put the rivals in a room and told them, "There is only one Kenya". He helped persuade one of them to accept the post of prime minister in a joint government. The violence ended.
But earlier in his career, Annan's record was less successful. He was head of U.N. peacekeeping in 1994, when he acknowledges he should have done more to help prevent the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The greatest reproach was that Annan failed to act on a telegram from the U.N. peacekeeper commander, General Romeo Dallaire, urging a move against arms caches being built up by Hutu extremists as they prepared mass murder.
"I believed at that time that I was doing my best," Annan said years later. "But I realised after the genocide that there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support."
In a book that was scathing about the world's failure to act, Dallaire had only praise for Annan, describing his "humanism and dedication to the plight of others".
When his U.N. career ended in 2006, he listed his main achievements as establishing the concept of a responsibility to protect civilians when their rulers will not or cannot.
But his tenure was littered with diplomatic disasters.
His worst moments, Annan said, included not being able to stop the bloodshed in Sudan's Darfur, the oil-for-food debacle and the Iraq war, after which he lost his voice for months.
The oil-for-food scandal broke in early 2004, when it emerged that Saddam Hussein had bilked the $64 billion programme designed to relieve the pain of U.N. sanctions on ordinary Iraqis. The sanctions were imposed after Baghdad's troops invaded Kuwait.
While few U.N. officials were accused of enriching themselves, the world body was blamed for lax management and not blowing the whistle on Saddam's tactics. Although Annan was cleared of wrongdoing, his son Kojo was found to have used U.N. contacts to his improper advantage.
Then came the most painful event - the bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on Aug. 19, 2003, that killed 22 people after Annan had decided, at the urging of the United States, to send senior U.N. staff back to Iraq.
"It hit me almost as much as the loss of my twin sister," Annan told his last news conference as Secretary-General, his voice choking. Efua Annan died of an illness in 1991.
Annan was also at the helm at the time of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, where insufficient U.N. peacekeeping forces again failed to stop the killing, and during a fiasco in Somalia that preceded Rwanda.
His defenders say he tried to get enough troops and the big power support to make a difference in Bosnia and Rwanda. Critics argue that he was held back by respect for the limits he had learned in decades as a U.N. functionary.