ST.PETERSBURG, Russia -- President Vladimir Putin said Friday he welcomed the fall of Saddam Hussein, but called the U.S.-led war in Iraq illegitimate and a threat to international law.
Speaking after a summit with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac, Putin signaled Russia was ready to cooperate with U.S.-led coalition forces on reconstruction, saying Moscow would consider writing off Baghdad's debts.
But Putin also criticized the United States for failing to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which he said was the only justification for war.
"Even in the most acute moment of the fight for its survival, the Iraqi regime did not use such (weapons)," Putin said. "If in the last moment of its existence it did not use them, it means they do not exist."
Earlier, Putin said he was not sorry to see Saddam go.
"Obviously the toppling of a tyrannical regime was a plus. But the human losses, the humanitarian catastrophe, the destruction are all negatives," Putin told a forum of German and Russian politicians and businessmen before the summit started.
"We must remember that up to 80 percent of the world's nations do not meet European democratic standards, but only the people of these nations can determine their future. The principle of sovereignty should remain unshakable," Putin said. "And another question is: Are those nations ready for the introduction of democracy?"
Putin, Schroeder and Chirac said the United Nations should now be given a leading role in Iraq.
"The task of restoring the political, economic and social system of Iraq is enormous," Chirac said. "Only the United Nations has the legitimacy to do that."
Schroeder said that details of the peace process in Iraq could be discussed with the U.S.-led coalition "but we must reach agreement on the aegis" -- the United Nations.
President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said earlier this week that the United Nations should play a vital role in rebuilding Iraq but that its role had not been defined.
U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz flatly told a Senate panel Thursday that the United Nations "can't be in charge."
Wolfowitz also suggested that Russia, France and Germany could contribute to postwar reconstruction by writing off Iraq's debts.
Russia is owed at least $7 billion in Soviet-era debt by Baghdad and is seeking to protect lucrative contracts signed by Russian companies to develop Iraq's oil industry.
Putin said at the news conference that Moscow would be ready for talks on the debt.
"Some people shot, some people stole, and now someone has to pay for that," he said.
Chirac and Schroeder said the issue should be decided within the Paris Club of creditor nations, but Schroeder added:
"There must be a legitimate government that appeals for debt relief. There is no such government yet ... so it doesn't make any sense to discuss this issue."
The Russian Foreign Ministry had earlier rejected Wolfowitz's proposal, saying it was "premature" to talk about Iraq's debts and that any discussions on the subject would be held "with a legal Iraqi government in accordance with U.N. resolutions."
Putin, who dominated the news conference, cautioned against what he called "the export of capitalist, democratic revolution" -- playing off the theory of the export of the socialist revolution, which dominated the one-time Communist world for decades.
"If we allow ourselves to do that, the world will end up on a slippery slope toward an endless series of military conflicts. We cannot allow that to happen," Putin said.