Annan breaks his silence

The U.N. secretary general declares the invasion of Iraq illegal -- and questions the feasibility of holding elections there in January.

Published September 16, 2004 2:01PM (EDT)

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared explicitly for the first time Wednesday night that the U.S.-led war on Iraq was illegal. Annan said that the invasion was not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council or in accordance with the U.N.'s founding charter. In an interview with the BBC World Service broadcast Wednesday night, he was asked outright if the war was illegal. He replied: "Yes, if you wish."

He then added unequivocally: "I have indicated it was not in conformity with the U.N. charter. From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal."

Annan has until now kept a tactful silence, and his intervention at this point undermines the argument pushed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair that the war was legitimized by Security Council resolutions.

Annan also questioned whether it will be feasible on security grounds to go ahead with the first planned election in Iraq scheduled for January. "You cannot have credible elections if the security conditions continue as they are now," he said.

His remarks come amid a marked deterioration of the situation on the ground, an upsurge of violence that has claimed 200 lives in four days and raised questions over the ability of the interim Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition to maintain control over the country. They also come as Blair is trying to put the controversy over the war behind him in the run-up to the conference season, a new parliamentary term and next year's probable general election.

The U.N. chief had warned the U.S. and its allies a week before the invasion in March 2003 that military action would violate the U.N. charter. But he has hitherto refrained from using the damning word "illegal."

Blair and the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, claim that Saddam Hussein was in breach of Security Council Resolution 1441, passed late in 2002, and of previous resolutions calling on him to give up weapons of mass destruction. France and other countries claimed these were insufficient.

No immediate comment was available from the White House, but American officials have defended the war as an act of self-defense, allowed under the U.N. charter in view of Hussein's supposed plans to build weapons of mass destruction.

However, last September, Annan issued a stern critique of the notion of preemptive self-defense, saying it would lead to a breakdown in international order. Annan Wednesday night said that there should have been a second U.N. resolution specifically authorizing war against Iraq. Blair and Straw tried to secure this second resolution early in 2003 in the run-up to the war but were unable to convince a skeptical Security Council.

Annan said the Security Council had warned Iraq in Resolution 1441 there would be "consequences" if it did not comply with its demands. But he said it should have been up to the council to determine what those consequences were.

By Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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