For 1st time, U.N. leader calls Iraq war illegal

Annan speaks out amid leak of bleak report on Iraq's future

September 17, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said for the first time yesterday that the Iraq war was "illegal" because the United States and its allies failed to win explicit authorization from the Security Council before invading Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein's government last year.

Annan's opinion was quickly rejected by the United States and two of its key allies, Britain and Australia. But it nevertheless roiled the debate about President Bush's justification for the war on a day when the White House was stung by the leak of a bleak intelligence outlook for Iraq's near-term future.

The White House struggled to play down the intelligence report, which warns of further deterioration -- and even a possible civil war in Iraq -- before the end of next year.

The 50-page report, prepared for Bush in late July, said that at best, Iraq could achieve a tenuous stability by the end of next year. It envisions two dark scenarios: more extremism and fragmentation that impede efforts to build a democracy, and movement toward civil war among Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Muslims and Kurds.

In a British Broadcasting Corp. interview aired early yesterday, Annan said, "I hope we do not see another Iraq-type operation for a long time," referring to a war the Bush administration launched, as Annan put it, "without U.N. approval and much broader support from the international community."

Asked if the war was illegal, Annan replied, "Yes, I have indicated it is not in conformity with the U.N. charter, from our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal."

`Material breach'

The Bush administration has long asserted that a resolution the Security Council adopted on Nov. 8, 2002, gave the United States all the authority it needed under international law to go to war.

That resolution found Iraq in "material breach" of its obligations to the United Nations by failing to cooperate with inspectors who were looking into Baghdad's efforts to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The resolution warned of "serious consequences" if Iraq ignored its last chance to comply. At the time, U.S. officials said they regarded "serious consequences" to mean military action.

The next March, just before the invasion, the United States and Britain failed to line up the nine Security Council votes needed for an explicit authorization for war. Others on the council, particularly France, Russia and Germany, insisted that the inspectors needed more time to determine whether Iraq was trying to defy the United Nations and hide its banned weapons.

Since the war, no chemical or biological weapons have been found, indicating that U.S. prewar intelligence was wrong.

Annan, who weighs his words carefully but also has a reputation for speaking his mind, has never made a secret of his belief that a second U.N. resolution was needed to authorize war against Iraq. But yesterday was the first time he has referred to the U.S.-led war as "illegal."

The American ambassador to the United Nations, John C. Danforth, said later, "We don't agree with the secretary-general on this point."

Noting that Iraq had defied 16 Security Council resolutions and that the council in November 2002 found Iraq in violation again of demands that it disclose its weapons program, Danforth said:

"It seems to me that it would undercut the rule of law had there been no action, had we just said, `Well, so we passed resolutions, but they're so much waste paper.'"

Bush, campaigning in Minnesota, did not comment directly on Annan's remarks. But the president restated his belief that the removal of Hussein was worthwhile even though no weapons of mass destruction have been found.

Referring to the unanimous Security Council vote threatening Iraq in November 2002, Bush said, "They voted by 15 to nothing in the U.N. Security Council for Saddam Hussein to disclose, disarm or face serious consequences. I believe when bodies say something, they better mean it."

"Knowing what I know today, even though we haven't found the stockpiles of weapons we thought were there, I'd still make the same decision. America and the world are safer with Saddam Hussein sitting in a prison cell."

Allies defend war

The British and Australian governments also disputed the secretary-general's assertion. The office of Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair referred to an opinion from the British attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, arguing that the war was sanctioned under international law.

Goldsmith stated that the November 2002 resolution found that Iraq remained in defiance of previous resolutions. Those included a 1991 resolution authorizing U.N. members to go to war against Baghdad to restore peace and security to the region.

Prime Minister John Howard of Australia, which, like Britain, has contributed forces for the war, said, "The legal advice that we had ... was that the action was entirely valid in international law terms."

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