- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday expressed strong disapproval of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s description of the U.S.-led war in Iraq as illegal, saying 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,” Mr. Powell said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

“I’m sure I will have the opportunity to talk to Kofi about this,” Mr. Powell added.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Powell said the United States was determined to improve the security situation in time for national elections in Iraq; pledged to keep international attention focused on the humanitarian crisis in Sudan; and lamented the unwillingness of many in the Muslim and Arab world to take on Islamic extremists in their midst.

Mr. Annan’s comments, made in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. over the weekend, startled and angered governments in the U.S.-led coalition that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein last year.

The U.N. chief had made no secret of his belief the United States and its allies should have sought an explicit Security Council resolution authorizing the war.

But he went much further in the BBC interview, saying, “From our point of view, from the [U.N. Charter] point of view, it was illegal.”

Mr. Powell said the Constitution gives the United States the right to act in its own self-defense without U.N. approval, but argued that the Iraq war itself was justified by Saddam’s “material breach” of a string of earlier U.N. resolutions on his weapons programs.

“What we did was totally consistent with international law,” he insisted.

Officials in Britain, Australia, Bulgaria and Poland yesterday joined Mr. Powell in rejecting Mr. Annan’s argument. Many allies would face severe political difficulties at home if the war was seen as lacking U.N. sanction.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, in a tight re-election race in which his support for the Iraq war is a crucial issue, said in a radio interview, “The legal advice that we had, and I tabled it at the time, was that the action was entirely valid in international law terms.”

In the interview, Mr. Powell said U.S. diplomats and military commanders recognize that proposed national elections in Iraq set for the end of this year or early 2005 cannot proceed under the current security conditions. Insurgents and terrorists enjoy functional control of a number of Iraqi cities in the restive Sunni heartland, and U.S. and Iraqi government forces face constant attacks.

But he predicted the security situation would improve, and that the U.S. presidential campaign would not stop U.S. and Iraqi government forces from acting forcefully.

“We don’t expect the security situation as it exists now on the 16th of September to be the security situation” on the day Iraqis vote, Mr. Powell said.

“We know and [Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi] knows that these areas have to be brought back firmly under government control,” he added.

Mr. Powell also played down a classified U.S. intelligence estimate this summer that offered a sometimes bleak assessment of the state of security in Iraq today. In the worst-case scenario, the report warns of a civil war in Iraq by the end of next year.

The campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry seized on leaked accounts of the intelligence estimate yesterday, saying it belied President Bush’s optimistic comments on Iraq’s future.

In a conference call arranged by the Kerry campaign, Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, demanded the full release of the estimate, saying, “The American people need to know the truth.”

But Mr. Powell called the National Intelligence Council document “a good piece of academic work,” and was not “anything that would cause you to ring alarm bells.”

“It wasn’t, frankly, anything I didn’t already know,” he added, calling the report “sober” rather that “pessimistic.”

He said the coalition efforts to train and equip a sizable Iraqi security force, coupled with the decision this week to dedicate some $3 billion of the $18 billion Iraq reconstruction package to security, would improve the situation on the ground.

On Sudan, Mr. Powell predicted some messy negotiations at the U.N. Security Council over a resolution condemning Khartoum’s handling of the crisis in the western region of Darfur.

Mr. Powell last week accused the government and Arab militia groups called Janjaweed of fomenting a “genocide” on Darfur’s black African population. But a number of Security Council members, led by China, have resisted U.S. efforts for a strong resolution directly threatening sanctions on Sudan’s vital oil industry.

“It’s not just a matter of getting the [resolution] language you start out with,” he said. “It’s a matter of making sure, when you go into one of these negotiations, you have your red lines intact.”

On Lebanon, Mr. Powell said a resolution sponsored by the United States and France essentially demanding a withdrawal of Syrian troops last week would not resolve the situation, but said the United States intended to keep the pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Damascus is still “reluctant to change its policies in the fundamental way we believe it should,” he said.

President Bush has made democratic reform a central plank of U.S. policy for the “Greater Middle East,” but Mr. Powell acknowledged that moderate voices in the Arab and Muslim world must come forward.

“I’d love to see them speak out,” he said.

But he added that in many Muslim countries, criticism of extremists “goes against the view of the street, and therefore you don’t see those powerful voices.”

Mr. Powell said he saw hopeful signs in a number of Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia and even Iraq.

He said Saudi officials “were not happy” with the State Department’s decision Wednesday to condemn the country’s record on religious freedom. But Mr. Powell said he also sensed real democratic stirrings in his talks with young Saudis and in the limited municipal elections now being organized in the kingdom.

On Islamic fundamentalist Iran, he noted that while the government remains deeply at odds with Washington over Iraq, nuclear weapons and terrorism, Iranian youth — more than half of the country’s population is under 25 years of age — have clearly signaled their unhappiness with the status quo.

Even while taking a tough line with the Iranian regime, “I keep looking over the wall at this 60 percent of the population and they want, I think, a different kind of life.”

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