By Irwin Arieff
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The world is no safer than it was three years ago, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on Wednesday, countering President Bush's claims he had made the world a safer place.
Annan, at a news conference, also criticized a Bush administration decision to withhold $34 million from the U.N. Population Fund, saying the agency was saving women's lives.
Annan's remarks could renew strains on ties between the United States and United Nations, which -- while devastated by Bush's inability to win U.N. backing for the U.S.-led war on Iraq -- had improved following U.N. help in setting up a new government in Baghdad in time for the U.S. occupation to end.
"No, I cannot say the world is safer today than it was two, three years ago," the U.N. leader said.
He was responding to a reporter who asked for comment on the Bush funding move and also whether Annan felt the world had become safer in the last two or three years.
Bush, who has launched two wars since moving into the White House in January 2001, repeatedly asserts in campaign swings ahead of the Nov. 2 presidential election that his policies are making the world safer.
"America is a safer place. Four more years and America will be safer and the world will be more peaceful," he said on Tuesday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
"The world is a safer and better place as a result of (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein not being in power," he told NBC Television in February.
The U.S. administration has withheld funding from the U.N. Population Fund, known as UNFPA, for three years, accusing it of supporting China's policy of coercive abortion.
The fund has denied this and a State Department investigation in 2002 also cleared the agency of such charges.
Family planning activists and some members of Congress have seen the U.S. move as a bid for conservative votes in November.
Annan said the U.N. agency was doing "very essential work on reproductive health" and particularly in confronting the AIDS epidemic, which strikes so many women it "today has a woman's face and is producing so many orphans."
"I hope governments will support UNFPA and not extend the decision not to fund its activities to other agencies," he said.