PARIS, Sept 17 (AFP) - France on Friday backed UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's description of the US-led war on Iraq as "illegal", with Foreign Minister Michel Barnier saying that long-held stance was why his country had opposed joining the conflict.
"You well know that what explains our country's disagreement with the way the war was carried out was that it clearly did not at that time abide by international law and there was not a clear request from the United States to start that action," he said at a joint news conference with visiting New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff.
That was "traditionally" France's view from the start, he added. "We have always considered that it's international law that constitutes the framework for any action, notably against terrorism or for stability in the world," he said.
Barnier's comments added fuel to a debate over the legitimacy of the US-British invasion of Iraq that promises to loom large at the United Nations headquarters in New York next week when world leaders and ministers gather for the world body's 59th general session.
Annan threw the spotlight back on the issue and tore the skin off old transatlantic wounds when he told BBC radio Wednesday that the United States had failed to seek a needed second resolution before launching the war in March 2003.
"I've indicated that it was not in conformity with the UN charter from our point of view, and from the charter point of view it was illegal," Annan said.
The US government hit back by claiming it considered that a previous UN resolution passed four months before the conflict gave it sufficient authority to wage its action because Saddam Hussein had refused to surrender suspected stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
After a year and a half of US troop deployment in Iraq, no such weapons have been found.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, John Danforth, said Thursday that the UN chief should have kept silent on the topic.
The debate has re-ignited simmering animosity between the pro- and anti-war camps. France -- a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council along with the United States -- was widely perceived as the leader of the latter camp because of highly publicised arguments made at the time by Barnier's predecessor, Dominique de Villepin, questioning the US justification for a pre-emptive invasion.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a staunch supporter of the war, was particularly scathing of Annan's comment, saying he saw the United Nations as a "paralysed" body.
Goff, speaking at Barnier's side, emphasised that, unlike Australia, his country "was not a member of the coalition of the willing" and that it "has always regarded that as being critical in finding multilateral solutions to the world's problems".
"Any shortcomings of the United Nations can't simply be blamed on the institution itself but rather on the readiness of international community members to work through that institution," he said, adding that "it would have been helpful to have had a second resolution to clarify" the legality of the Iraq war.
Goff said that 61 military engineers from New Zealand who had contributed to the reconstruction effort in Iraq at the United Nations' request would be returning home this month after a year's tour of duty near the southern city of Basra.
"It is possible that defence forces in terms of reconstruction and humanitarian work may be redeployed in Iraq sometime in the future," he said. "But at the current time our major commitment is in the area of Afghanistan."
Subject: French News
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