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Ahern 'always against' Iraq war despite airport access

TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern insisted last night that he had always opposed the Iraq war - despite allowing thousands of US troops to pass through Shannon airport, Conor Sweeney reports.

TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern insisted last night that he had always opposed the Iraq war - despite allowing thousands of US troops to pass through Shannon airport.

He claimed a decision by the US to exclude Ireland from a list of countries which could tender for multi-billion dollar contracts for reconstruction work in Iraq "vindicated his stance" on the war.

Mr Ahern spoke as President Bush poured fuel on the flames of the row with a sneering dismissal of a suggestion by Chancellor Gerhard Schroder that the decision to bar Germany, France, Russia and Canada from bidding might violate international law.

"International law? I'd better call my lawyer," Mr Bush joked in response to a reporter's question at the White House yesterday.

The Taoiseach, asked if he was disappointed that Ireland was not on the American list, replied: "Not at all. Didn't I oppose the war throughout? It was just a few people who didn't really understand and believed I was supporting the war. I was always against the war.

"I did all I could throughout to hold and uphold the UN position. I always believe we should try and avoid a conflict.

"Once a conflict started then you have to understand the inevitability that relationships of the countries in the war. We always tried to do everything to avoid war," Mr Ahern said.

The Taoiseach, in a response that will baffle those who saw him as their focus of protest for allowing Shannon to be used by the US, recalled that he had said at the time the 100,000 marching in opposition to the war "were supporting me".

"They were supporting my position and this vindicates that I was right when I was saying that," said Mr Ahern.

It is expected that Irish companies will still be able to tender for sub-contracts for the rebuilding of post-war Iraq, despite being excluded from the main contracts.

Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Cowen said detailed inquiries were being made about the fact that Ireland did not figure among the countries able to bid for the massive contracts.

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According to the controversial list published by the US Department of Defence in Washington, only countries that supported the US led invasion of Iraq are eligible to tender for contracts.

Although Ireland continued to allow the US military access to Shannon airport, despite the failure of the US to get UN approval for the war, the American military hawks apparently still believe Ireland was against them, not with them.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called the American decision "unfortunate" and likely to damage attempts to rebuild transatlantic ties bruised by disagreement over the war.

The memo issued by Paul Wolfowitz, deputy Secretary of Defence, comes at the very moment Mr Bush is dispatching James Baker, the former Secretary of State, as his personal envoy to try to persuade Iraq's main creditors - among them France and Russia - to forgive its foreign debt, and the US is seeking more foreign troops for Iraqi peacekeeping.

Last night, Fine Gael foreign affairs spokesman Gay Mitchell said Ireland had facilitated the United States military aircraft during the war and yet Ireland was not on the list of countries which could apply for contracts.

Mr Cowen, he said, should raise the issue "forcefully" with the US.

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