(Changes dateline from Geneva, adds State Department comment)
WASHINGTON, June 6 (Reuters) - In an attempt to further distance itself from the U.N. Human Rights Council, the United States said on Friday it would only engage the body when there was an issue of "deep national interest."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the decision, taken recently by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, reflected mistrust of the 47-member state forum, at which the United States currently has observer status.
"Our skepticism regarding the function of the U.N. Council on Human Rights in terms of fulfilling its mandate and its mission is well known. It has a rather pathetic record," McCormack told reporters.
"We will engage the Human Rights Council really only when we believe that there are matters of deep national interest before the council ... We are going to take a more reserved approach," he added.
Diplomatic sources said the United States had quietly informed Western allies on Friday of its intention to walk away from the council.
"They said they were going to disengage totally," said one representative of a rights watchdog group.
The U.S. delegation has observer status, with the right to speak at the forum when it meets in Geneva. Washington has never stood for election since the council was set up two years ago to replace the widely discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
In a council debate on Friday on the situation in Myanmar, the United States failed to take the floor on a topic on which until now it has always been vocal, a sign that it had little further interest in the body.
Asked about the Myanmar debate, McCormack said Washington would decide on an "ad hoc" basis when to get involved.
The council is seen by critics as having fallen under the control of a bloc of Islamic and African countries, which have a majority when backed by their frequent allies Russia, China and Cuba.
"Instead of focusing on some of the real and deep human rights issues around the world, it has really turned into a forum that seems to be almost solely focused on bashing Israel," said McCormack of the council. (Reporting by Sue Pleming; additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; editing by Eric Beech)