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As attack on Iraq begins, question remains: Is it legal?

The White House and British legal authorities say the war is justified under UN Resolution 1441.

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Of all the international criticisms of the war that broke out Thursday in Iraq, none cut more deeply into America's image of itself than the argument that the US-led attack is illegal.

International-law experts are divided on whether Washington has the right to invade Iraq in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution specifically authorizing such an assault.

But most agree that President Bush cannot justify the war with his new doctrine of preemptive military action to forestall the threat that he says Saddam Hussein poses. Preemptive force "is extremely dangerous and flat-out illegal," says Jordan Paust, professor of international law at the University of Houston. "Implying a right to take out a regime that threatens us - that is quite threatening to the international legal order."

French President Jacques Chirac said Tuesday he had opposed the war "in the name of the primacy of the law," and slammed the US administration for preferring "the use of force over compliance with the law." UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also warned last week that war on Iraq without a new resolution endorsing it "will not be in conformity with the (UN) Charter," a cornerstone of international law.

But British Foreign Minister Jack Straw insisted yesterday that "every single thing we are doing is in compliance with (UN Security Council) Resolution 1441," which last November threatened President Hussein with "serious consequences" if he did not take a last chance to give up his weapons of mass destruction. "We are putting that resolution into effect, not avoiding it," he added.

White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and British legal authorities have concluded that UN Security Council Resolution 1441 is all the legal authority Washington needs for the war.

France and Russia have since said they did not intend the threat of "serious consequences" to mean armed force without a second resolution. When the Security Council has threatened war in the past, it has always talked of "all necessary means" as a hallowed euphemism.

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