Secretary-General Kofi Annan's (search ) claim that the war in Iraq was illegal drew strong protest from the United States and its allies but little comment from the war's opponents, who appeared unwilling to revisit the question.
The U.N. spokesman played down the strong reaction to Annan's remarks, saying the U.N. chief had been making essentially the same statement for more than a year.
But the response may have had more to do with the timing than with the content of Annan's remarks. Next week is the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly (search ), a meeting that also comes in the midst of a U.S. election campaign where the war in Iraq is an issue.
Asked about Annan's comments during an interview with The Washington Times' editorial board, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell (search ) said the coalition's actions in Iraq were "entirely legal and legal in accordance with U.N. Security Councils of the past." He rejected Annan's use of the word "illegal."
"I don't think it was a useful statement to make at this point," Powell said in a transcript released by the State Department. "What does it gain anyone? We should all be gathering around the idea and the prospect of helping the Iraqi people, helping the Iraqi government, and not getting into these kinds of side issues which are not relevant any longer."
Powell noted that he talks with Annan several times a week: "I understand his position and he understands my position."
The United States, Britain, Australia and Poland — all supporters of the war and part of the coalition still in Iraq — defended the legality of invading the country and ousting Saddam Hussein.
France, which led the opposition to the war, shied away from commenting, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous saying: "You know our position. We had the opportunity at the time to express ourselves very clearly."
China's U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya, whose country also opposed the war, was also reticent. "I think all of us have views on the Iraqi war. I think definitely the views are different among council members. What is important now is to help achieve peace and stability in that country," he said.
That is a major concern of Annan's as well, but it was his comment on the illegality of the war that made headlines and undercut governments that supported the United States on Iraq, in some cases 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, a statement he has made several times since March 10, 2003, most recently on March 8, 2004.
But after being pressed three times on whether the war was legal or illegal, Annan replied: "From our point of view and from the Charter point of view, it was illegal."
Despite Annan's use of the word "illegal" for the first time, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said the secretary-general hadn't changed what he has been saying about the war.
"He feels it is no difference from what he has been saying for more than a year, and that position is very well known to member governments," Eckhard said.
The secretary-general didn't intend to inject the issue into the upcoming General Assembly session and has established a high-level panel to look at the issue of preventive war "and try to bring that in conformity with the Charter principles, which do not permit preventive war," Eckhard said. The panel's report is expected in December.
So was the issue a non-story?
"We see nothing new in it," Eckhard said.
But supporters of the war saw it differently.
President Bush didn't comment directly on Annan's remarks, but U.S. Ambassador John Danforth at the United Nations denied the invasion was against U.N. resolutions.
Danforth said 16 Security Council resolutions stated that Iraq was not in compliance with U.N. demands. The resolutions "promised that there would be serious consequencs if they were not in compliance ... so it seems to me that it would have undercut the rule of law had there been no action."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office disputed Annan's comments and reiterated that the British attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, had issued advice that Britain was acting legally.
Goldsmith issued an opinion on March 17, 2003, stating that three U.N. resolutions justified the use of force against Iraq.
Australia's prime minister said there was nothing illegal about the U.S.-led invasion.
"There had been a series of Security Council resolutions and the advice we had [was] that it was entirely legal," Prime Minister John Howard told Perth radio 6PR.
Poland's Foreign Ministry also pointed to U.N. resolution 1441 as providing sufficient authority for the war.
French lawmaker Axel Poniatowski, a member of President Jacques Chirac's party, said France's reluctance to remark on Annan's position shows that the debate on the legality of the war is over.
"France does not want to debate endlessly about the fact that it was opposed [to the war]," Poniatowski said in a telephone interview. "This problem has passed into history. Everyone expressed themselves widely, more than widely, on whether or not they should have gone in and everyone's position is known."