IMAGE: U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is interviewed at the State Department
Shaun Heasley  /  REUTERS
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's comment was "not a very useful statement to make at this point."
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 9/17/2004 11:34:37 AM ET 2004-09-17T15:34:37

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell joined U.S. allies in disputing U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s assertion that the U.S.-led war in Iraq was illegal and said in an interview published on Friday that the comment was “not a very useful statement to make at this point.”

“What does it gain anyone? We should all be gathering around the idea of helping the Iraqis, not getting into these kinds of side issues,” Powell said in an interview with the Washington Times.

Powell added that he was sure he would have the opportunity to talk to Annan about the comments the U.N. chief made to the BBC on Wednesday.

Asked whether the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq broke international law, Annan said, “Yes, if you wish. 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.”

Charter requires Security Council approval
The charter allows nations to take military action with Security Council approval, such as during the Korean War and the 1991 Gulf War.

But in 2003, in the buildup to the Iraq war, the United States dropped an attempt to get a Security Council resolution approving the invasion when it became clear it would not pass.

Image: United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan
Spencer Platt  /  Getty Images
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan
“I hope we do not see another Iraq-type operation for a long time — without U.N. approval and much broader support from the international community,” Annan told the BBC.

Powell, however, said: “What we did was totally consistent with international law.”

Officials in Britain, Australia and Poland also insisted the military action in Iraq was legal.

The United Nations played down Annan’s statement, which spokesman Fred Eckhard said Annan felt was no different from what he has been saying for more than a year.

In the wide-ranging Washington Times interview, Powell also acknowledged the serious security situation in Iraq after months of violence. Nearly 200 Iraqis have been killed in bomb blasts, clashes and other attacks over the past few days.

World powerPowell said U.S. diplomats and military commanders recognized that Iraqi elections set for January cannot proceed under the current security conditions in certain areas of the country but predicted it would improve.

“We don’t expect the security situation as it exists now … to be the security situation” on the day Iraqis vote, Powell told the newspaper.

Rebellious areas must be tamed, Powell says
“We know and (interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi) knows that these areas have to a brought back firmly under government control.”

On Thursday, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s official spokesman reminded reporters that Britain’s attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, had found before the war that Britain was acting legally, citing three U.N. resolutions he said justified the use of force against Saddam.

Britain was a leading supporter of the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam, which followed months of bitter debate in the 15-nation Security Council.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard — a staunch U.S. supporter who defied widespread public anger to participate in the invasion — also dismissed claims that the military action violated international law.

“There had been a series of Security Council resolutions and the advice we had (was) that it was entirely legal,” Howard told Perth radio station 6PR.

France, which led the opposition to the war, steered clear of the debate Thursday.

Asked to respond to Annan’s comments, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous said simply: “You know our position.”

“We had the opportunity at the time to express ourselves very clearly,” Ladsous said.

January elections in doubt
In the interview, Annan also said that the wave of violence engulfing Iraq puts in doubt the national elections scheduled for January.

There could not be “credible elections if the security conditions continue as they are now,” he told the BBC.

In response to Annan’s remarks, Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar said on Thursday it was too early to say whether violence would delay elections.

"I think it is a little premature to decide on this issue... Our priority is to work on restoring security."

Speaking during a visit to The Hague, he added, "We want to hold the elections in a safe and secure environment.

"We will keep working around the clock to meet this commitment and we will look into the matter in due course."

NBC's Tammy Kupperman, the Associated Press, and Reuters contributed to this report.

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