Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s impassioned anti-war calls at a time when “the world lives in fear” set the stage for leaders at the Non-Aligned Summit, held in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, to speak out against war in Iraq as well as unilateralism in international affairs.

Fighting war, Mahathir said, is the first step to tackling the larger problem of economic domination of the developing world, which comprise the 116-nation Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). NAM members make up two-thirds of the United Nations.

“War must be outlawed. That will have to be our struggle now,” Mahathir told the NAM summit that opened Monday. “We must struggle for justice and freedom from oppression, from economic hegemony. But we must remove the threat of war first.”

A war in the Middle East would not only increase instability in the world, but also add to the pain of growing impoverishment, South African President Thabo Mbeki said before handing over the NAM chairmanship to Mahathir.

“We must together make the statement that we do not want war,” Mbeki said. “But we must also make the statement that neither do we want weapons of mass destruction,” he added, referring to Iraq.

A key theme among NAM leaders was the concern that the multilateral system of international relations and conflict resolution is under threat due to the way the United States and its allies are handling the Iraqi crisis.

“The threat of unilateral action by a powerful country, let alone just to act on the basis of or simply to demonstrate its might of superiority, is clearly mistaken,” said Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri. “No matter how powerful the country is that does not give it the right to act unilaterally against another.”

Cuban President Fidel Castro said U.S. President George W. Bush was driving the world toward “unnecessary military action against Iraq” and he assailed “unipolar hegemony.”

Leaders also denounced Bush’s “axis of evil” label for member states Iraq, Iran and North Korea, describing the tag itself as “a form of psychological and political terrorism.”

But Mahathir observed that, fortunately, many people in the rich countries are also sick of war and have come out in the millions to protest the “warlike policies of their leaders,” as the anti-war rallies last month showed.

He called upon NAM countries to join their struggle “with all the moral force that we can command.”

“Speaking for Malaysia, we appreciate France’s position,” Mahathir said. “It is a very brave thing for France to do, to oppose the United States in this matter. It is because France is concerned about the cost of human lives.”

The summit adopted a declaration urging member state Iraq to comply with UN resolutions to disarm, but called for more time for UN weapons inspectors to try to accomplish their mission.

While Iraq and North Korea were the main focus of the summit, support was given to the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in his battle to uphold democracy. The summit declaration adopted by the leaders expressed “support to the government of Hugo Chavez Frias, elected democratically with the support of the majority of votes.” Chavez had to cancel his trip to the summit.

The NAM was created in 1955 to pave a “neutral” path between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Now the NAM is a forum for developing countries facing the onslaught of corporate globalization.

Cuba will host the next summit and assume the movement’s presidency in 2006. Cuba last hosted the summit in 1979. The presidency is rotated every few years among the group’s major regions: Africa, Asia and Latin America.