Major U.S. allies on Thursday rejected a claim by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the war in Iraq was "illegal" because Washington and its coalition partners never got Security Council backing for the invasion.
Annan's comments undercut governments from Australia to Italy that supported the United States on Iraq, often in the face of widespread domestic opposition.
The U.N. chief told British Broadcasting Corp. radio on Wednesday that the U.S.-led invasion did not conform to the United Nations Charter (search), which lets nations take military action with explicit Security Council (search) approval.
"From our point of view and from the Charter point of view, it was illegal," Annan said. He also raised concerns that persistent violence in Iraq puts in doubt the national elections scheduled for January.
Prime Minister Tony Blair's office disputed Annan's comments about the legitimacy of the war. It reiterated that the British attorney general, Lord Goldsmith (search), had found Britain was acting legally in supporting the military action, citing three U.N. resolutions that justified the use of force against Saddam Hussein's regime.
Britain was a leading supporter of the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam, a war that followed months of bitter debate in the 15-nation Security Council.
Bush didn't comment directly on Annan's remarks but said he had no regrets.
"I was hoping diplomacy would work, " Bush said Thursday while campaigning in Minnesota. "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."
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government, which also supported the invasion, made no comment.
But Giuseppe Fioroni, a member of Italy's center-left opposition, urged the government to take a position.
"Other governments felt a duty to express themselves with clear words. As usual, Italy is an exception from which we would like to hear a position clearly and urgently," Fioroni told the country's ANSA news agency.
Analyst Germano Dottori of the Center for Strategic Studies (search) in Rome said he suspected Annan was trying to undermine President Bush before the U.S. elections.
"The timing cannot be explained otherwise. Why would you make a statement like this now, when it is in everybody's interest to stabilize the situation?" Dottori said.
France and Germany, which led the opposition to the war, declined to reopen the debate that split the Atlantic alliance.
"You know our position," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous said when asked to comment on Annan's comments. "We had the opportunity at the time to express ourselves very clearly."
French lawmaker Axel Poniatowski, a member of President Jacques Chirac's party, said France's reluctance to publicly react to Annan's position showed that the debate on the legality of the war is over.
"This problem has passed into history," Poniatowski told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "The issue today is how do we get out of the Iraqi situation and what do we do against terrorism."
But Spain — whose current government opposed the war and withdrew its troops from Iraq after being elected in March — said Annan's comments came as no surprise.
"We're not surprised by Annan's comments. That's what Spain said and that's why we pulled out the troops," government spokesman Javier Valenzuela said.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard — a staunch U.S. supporter who defied widespread public anger to participate in the invasion — said the military action was "entirely legal."
A previous Security Council resolution had warned Iraq to be prepared for "serious consequences" if it didn't meet U.N. obligations, but the United States dropped an attempt to get a new resolution explicitly approving the March 2003 invasion when it became clear the measure would not pass.
"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.
British Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt said she also disagreed with Annan.
"There have always been different views on that matter and ... of course I respect his views on this matter and I regret that we disagree with them," Hewitt told BBC radio, adding the important thing now was to help Iraqis achieve "a safe, secure, democratic Iraq."
Japan's top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, said his country, also a U.S. supporter in Iraq, would seek clarification about Annan's remarks.
Annan said 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.
Interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer said elections will not be held just "for the sake of elections" and emphasized that returning peace to his country is his government's priority.
"We want to hold the elections in a safe and secure environment. We will keep working around the clock to meet this commitment," he said during a visit to the Netherlands. "The U.N. is supervising and monitoring and helping us a lot in Iraq preparing for elections next year. I think it is a little bit too premature to decide on this issue."
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has said he is determined to hold the election by Jan. 31, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Danforth has all but ruled out any delay beyond the Jan. 31 deadline.