LONDON, Jan 26: US and British leaders George W. Bush and Tony Blair are wrong to retroactively justify the invasion of Iraq on humanitarian grounds , a global rights group said on Monday.

New York-based Human Rights Watch criticised the West for turning a blind eye to Saddam Hussein's atrocities - such as the 1988 massacre of Kurds - at a time when the level of slaughter could have justified armed intervention.

"Only mass slaughter might permit the deliberate taking of life involved in using military force for humanitarian purposes," the group's head Kenneth Roth said in its annual report.

"Brutal as Saddam Hussein's reign had been, the scope of the Iraq government's killing in March 2003 was not of the exceptional and dire magnitude that would justify humanitarian intervention," he wrote in one of the report's 15 essays.

"The Bush administration cannot justify the war in Iraq as a humanitarian intervention, and neither can Tony Blair." In the run-up to war, both cited Saddam's alleged banned weapons as their main motive. But in the absence of hard evidence of weapons of mass destruction, they have placed growing emphasis on Saddam's tyrannical rule.

That shift has outraged the anti-war lobby and rights groups fear it could undermine future humanitarian missions. Roth contrasted Washington's "after-the-facts efforts to justify the Iraq war" with a French and UN intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year that was "clearly motivated" by the need to stop slaughter.

"The Iraq war and the effort to justify it even in part in humanitarian terms risk giving humanitarian intervention a bad name... It could be devastating for people in need of future rescue."

Before resorting to war, the international community should have exhausted the option of criminal indictment, which helped topple former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and Liberia's ex-president Charles Taylor, Roth argued.

RIGHTS "SIDELINED": In another damning essay on Iraq, the group chided the post-war occupying powers for "sidelining" human rights. "The United States and its partners have treated human rights issues as matters of secondary importance," wrote essay authors Joe Stork and Fred Abrahams.

"The rule of law has not arrived and...(Iraq) is still beset by the legacy of human rights abuses of the former government, as well as new ones that have emerged under the occupation." They pointed to the lack of coordination of mass grave exhumations and deaths of civilians in dubious circumstances.-Reuters

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