Gaby Hinsliff / The Observer Sunday – 2005-04-26 08:05:51
LONDON (April 24, 2005) — The Iraq war was thrust dramatically into the election spotlight last night after long-sought government legal advice, cautioning that the invasion could be illegal, was leaked.
The document appears to confirm for the first time that the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, had serious reservations about the legality of the conflict, only to change his mind as British and US troops massed on the border of Iraq ready to invade.
The government has steadfastly refused all calls to publish the document, and its sudden disclosure is bound to have an explosive effect on the election campaign, reawakening the prickly issue of voters’ trust in Tony Blair, to the dismay of Labour MPs struggling to overcome anger over the war.
The 13 pages of legal advice that Goldsmith drew up on 7 March, according to a report in today’s Mail on Sunday, warned that Blair could be in breach of international law for six reasons ranging from the lack of a second United Nations resolution to UN inspector Hans Blix’s continuing search for weapons.
Ten days later, he apparently changed his mind, delivering a summary to Blair declaring the war was legal – the cue for the invasion.
The timing of the leak — just 11 days before polling day, with both the Liberal Democrats and the Tories planning to highlight Iraq over the next few days — is bound to trigger a major Whitehall mole hunt.
Robin Cook’s Warning
Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary who resigned over the war, said he had warned former colleagues of the risk that the advice would eventually surface.
‘I urged the government to publish the full Attorney General’s advice, and warned that so much had become known about it that it was inevitable that it would come out,’ he said.
‘I regret the government did not publish the advice on their own terms and in their own time, with the result that it has now come out at the worst possible time,’ he added. Cook said he had resigned because he considered it wrong to go to war without a second UN resolution. ‘What we know now is that the Attorney General appears to have agreed with me,’ he said.
According to the report, the 7 March document cites, among potential risks, a strong argument that it was for the UN, not Blair, to decide whether Iraq had defied orders to disarm. While, in theory, the Prime Minister was entitled to take this decision, a court could rule otherwise.
It also questioned whether Britain could rely on UN resolution 1441 — warning of ‘serious consequences’ if Saddam Hussein flouted the UN ruling — as grounds for invasion, and said it would be safer to proceed with a second UN resolution, which Blair could not obtain.
Inspections Were Proceeding:
Iraq Was Being ‘Compliant’
According to the newspaper report, the advice also warned it could be difficult to revive UN resolution 678, passed in 1990 when Saddam invaded Kuwait, as justification for the war. Goldsmith highlighted a report by Blix that Iraq was being more compliant.
None of these caveats appeared in the statement Goldsmith published in the House of Lords, on 17 March after giving a summary of his advice to the Cabinet.
The full legal document, apparently disclosed to the newspaper, is understood not to have been seen by the Cabinet.
Although Goldsmith’s office stressed last night that he had ultimately concluded the war was legal, and this was his own ‘genuinely-held independent view’, opposition parties demanded full disclosure of the advice to restore public trust.
‘If this government is scared to tell us the truth about something as fundamental as the legal basis for war, what else is being kept from us?’ said Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader.
Invasion’s ‘Legality’ and Blair’s ‘Honesty’
Are Now Being Questioned
Shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram said it raised ‘the most serious questions’ not only about the legality of the war but Blair’s honesty, adding: ‘The Attorney General must now come clean on the advice he originally gave and the Prime Minister must explain the caveats which were excluded from the summary.’
There will be intense speculation over how such a sensitive document could have leaked. It would have circulated within a restricted Whitehall circle, but is understood to have been seen by the Butler inquiry, examining the process by which Britain went to war.
Both Kennedy and Tory leader Michael Howard were already planning to campaign on Iraq, seen as crucial to loss of faith in Labour, with Kennedy also planning to raise the spectre of a future American-led attack on Iran. Writing in The Observer today, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell stops short of accusing Blair of lying but says he ‘misrepresented’ the intelligence. He warns that Iraq ‘cannot be airbrushed out of the election’.
Howard, meanwhile, accused Blair before the leak emerged of having lied to win re-election. ‘He’s only taken a stand on one thing in the last eight years – taking Britain to war. And he couldn’t even tell the truth about that,’ the Tory leader added.
An ICM poll carried out for Vote for Peace, which campaigns for anti-war MPs in marginal constituencies, found this weekend that only seven per cent of Britons would support a US-led war on Iran without UN agreement. More than a third would not support it in any circumstances.
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