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OTSU, Shiga Pref. — With the long-expected U.S.-led war in Iraq now a reality, the ongoing World Water Forum began falling apart Thursday.

Some delegates have begun returning home, forcing the cancellation of at least two sessions Thursday and causing those who remain to wonder if the forum, which ends Sunday, will produce anything of substance.

Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, scheduled to chair the final ministerial conference Sunday, announced that she would not be coming. The announcement came two days after reports that Chikage Ogi, minister of land, transport and infrastructure, would be absent from Saturday’s conference. The ministries are cohosting the forum.

Just before U.S. President George W. Bush announced the attack had begun, Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union and in Shiga Prefecture on behalf of the nongovernmental organization Green Cross International, blasted the U.S. decision.

“This military action is unjustified,” Gorbachev said. “The attack has nothing to do with global leadership. It suggests the U.S. intends to act as if the world is its fiefdom.”

Many in the audience of about 600 burst into applause.

Afterward, many sessions were sparsely attended, as delegates gathered around television sets to watch coverage of the attack.

Gorbachev’s comments came amid doubts about the forum’s validity, which have been raised not only by NGOs opposed to agenda items such as water privatization, but also by participants themselves because of the absence of key government officials.

Japan has also come under criticism for its lack of leadership. As chair, Japan is responsible for preparing the ministerial statement to be released at the end of the conference and used as a reference at the summit of the Group of Eight industrial countries in France later this year.

But the first draft of the statement, discussed by senior ministers Wednesday, was criticized by many delegates as lacking specific, concrete measures.

Work has begun on a new draft.

The alleged lack of political leadership by conference participants also worried Gorbachev.

“Frankly, there have been too many speeches. There is a lack of political will,” he said. “We need to develop a specific plan to deal with water issues.”

The issue of whether the final declaration should include water as a human right remained unresolved as of early in the evening. Some countries, including the United States, are fighting to ensure that it does not, due to concerns that the inclusion of such a statement will lead governments to limit or forbid private sector participation in water and sanitation projects.

There were also fears among participants that bombing by the U.S. would destroy Iraqi dams and water sanitation facilities.

Former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, in his role as chairman of the forum’s steering committee, said here that it is imperative for the international community to ensure that ordinary Iraqis have access to safe water.

Meanwhile, in Kyoto, the main venue of the forum, high-level officials from participating governments were said to be debating whether to include a statement on Iraq in the final declaration.

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