U.N. Chief Ignites Firestorm by Calling Iraq War 'Illegal'

By PATRICK E. TYLER

New York Times

September 17, 2004

LONDON, Sept. 16 - Over the last 18 months, Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations has expressed many reservations about the war in Iraq.

He has asserted that it was not in "conformity" with the United Nations Charter. He has "raised questions about the legitimacy" of the action by the United States and Britain to go to war without specific authority from the Security Council.

But Mr. Annan's radio interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation on Wednesday, in which he said for the first time that he believed the war was "illegal," set off a tempest of reaction and raised questions in a number of capitals about why he had chosen that moment to adopt more muscular language about the war.

Iraqi officials are irritated by the timing of Mr. Annan's remarks, diplomats said, as Iraq's interim government struggles to organize its first elections in the face of a tenacious insurgency. His statements will be seen as a signal of wavering international support, they said.

Mr. Annan also made clear his reservations about elections.

"You cannot have credible elections if the security conditions continue as they are now," he said.

Critics of Mr. Annan and of the United Nations accused him of trying to influence politics in important member countries, notably the United States. Others saw his statements as a reflection of his pessimism about the postwar chaos in Iraq.

In New York, Mr. Annan's spokesman rejected those notions.

"We see nothing new in it," said Fred Eckhard, the spokesman. The secretary general "feels it's no different from what he has been saying for more than a year, Mr. Eckhard said.

Still, with the annual meeting of the General Assembly a week away, with presidential debates pending in the United States, with elections next month in Australia and possibly next year in Britain, and with a state of heightened alarm about increasing violence in Iraq, Mr. Annan's remarks were taken in some capitals as a sign that he was drawing a sharper point about international law and the still prominent divisions over the role of the United Nations.

Prime Minister John Howard of Australia, in a close re-election battle, called the United Nations "paralyzed" and asserted that "the legal advice we had" at the outset of the war "was that the action was entirely valid in international law terms."

Patricia Hewitt, a member of Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet, disputed Mr. Annan. "There have always been different views on that matter," she told the BBC. "I regret that we disagree" with his view.

A spokesman for Mr. Blair noted that Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, had found that Britain was acting legally in backing military action. But his private advice to Mr. Blair may have also expressed reservations about the legality of the war, according to statements by a former member of his staff.

A spokeswoman for President Jacques Chirac of France said Mr. Annan's view conformed with the French view. "We consider the action as illegitimate," she said. In the interview, Mr. Annan was asked whether he felt that the United States "is becoming an unrestrainable, unilateral superpower?"

There had been "painful lessons" from the war in Iraq, he replied. "I think in the end, everybody is concluding that it is best to work together with our allies and through the U.N." Then he added, "I hope we do not see another Iraq-type operation for a long time."

Then he was asked about the legal authority for the war.

"Well, I'm one of those who believe that there should have been a second resolution," he said, because "it was up to the Security Council to approve or determine" what the "consequences should be" for Iraq's noncompliance with earlier resolutions.

"I have stated clearly that it was not in conformity with the Security Council - with the U.N. Charter," Mr. Annan replied to another question about the legal authority.

Asked pointedly, he said, "It was illegal, if you wish.'' He added, "From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal."

Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman, said: "We don't agree. We previously made clear that coalition forces had authority under several U.N. resolutions."