UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The most outspoken opponents of military action against Iraq – France, Russia and Germany – insisted yesterday the United States will be acting illegally if it attacks Iraq and overthrows Saddam Hussein.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told the U.N. Security Council that no U.N. resolution authorized military action or “the violent overthrow of the leadership of a sovereign state.”

There are also “no indisputable facts” to demonstrate that Iraq threatens the United States, he said. If there were, the Bush administration could exercise its right under the U.N. Charter to respond in self-defense.

The foreign ministers of Russia, France and Germany attended an open council meeting held only hours before the clock ran out on a Wednesday evening deadline set by President Bush for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq or face war. Though the Bush administration has said the time for diplomacy was over, the ministers made a point of attending to reaffirm their opposition to war and assert the primacy of the United Nations.

Declaring that military intervention “has no credibility,” Germany’s Joschka Fischer also stressed, “There is no basis in the U.N. Charter for a regime change with military means.”

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin reiterated his country’s contention that a war would not only be illegal but would exacerbate the tensions and divisions on which “terrorists feed.”

The three ministers did not say they would raise the issue in the council after a war begins. They insisted the U.N. Security Council would have a role in the aftermath of war.

Predicting “imminent disaster” for the people of Iraq, Secretary-General Kofi Annan implored the United States and its allies yesterday not to forsake humanitarian aid when the fighting starts.

“This is a sad day for the United Nations,” Annan said. “I know that millions of people around the world share this sense of disappointment and are deeply alarmed.”

He said he plans to submit proposals to the council shortly on adjusting the U.N. oil-for-food program, which was providing food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies for about 60 percent of Iraq’s 22 million people until it was suspended this week.

The council meeting was called to hear a report by chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix outlining a dozen issues that Iraq needed to resolve to prove it was disarming peacefully, but for many members, his list of disarmament tasks was eclipsed by the approaching war. Blix expressed disappointment that inspections were curtailed after only 3 1/2 months.

With war looming, the session took place in an atmosphere of sadness and defiance, with many members determined not to be sidelined by the conflict. To show its importance, the foreign ministers of Syria and Guinea also attended.

By contrast, the United States, Britain and Spain were among the 10 countries represented by their ambassadors. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he had no intention of coming to New York, and U.S. officials made a point of downplaying the meeting’s importance.

In a short speech, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte reiterated that the United States believes Saddam had failed to cooperate with U.N. inspectors and called Blix’s program “quite simply out of touch with the reality that we confront.”

He said the United States and others were preparing a draft resolution that would ensure the continuity of the oil-for-food program, and expressed hope it would be adopted quickly to minimize any interruption of humanitarian assistance.

Virtually all council members expressed concern about the plight of the Iraqi people, but there was concern about a U.S.-backed draft, because the United States would also be the occupying power.

In looking ahead to a U.N. role as the Iraq conflict unfolds, Russia’s Ivanov made clear that there cannot be a political settlement in the country without the Security Council.

“The United Nations has never been so necessary,” echoed de Villepin, whose speech was greeted with applause in the council chamber, as were his two previous presentations against U.S. military action.

But as the meeting broke up, with the council still bitterly divided, the mood was tense.

“It’s a tragedy,” said Chile’s U.N. Ambassador Gabriel Valdes. “Another tragedy is going to begin now.”

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