IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Iraq leak puts Blair under pressure

Iraq exploded onto the British election campaign on Thursday as leaked advice from the government’s top lawyer, questioning the war’s legality, hit Tony Blair just a week before general elections.
/ Source: Reuters

Iraq exploded onto the British election campaign on Thursday as leaked advice from the government’s top lawyer, questioning the war’s legality, hit Tony Blair just a week before polling day.

Trailing the prime minister badly in opinion surveys, opposition parties seized on the secret pre-war report from Attorney General Lord Peter Goldsmith as showing Blair was deceitful.

“The whole things reeks. (There has been) gross deception,” said Dominic Grieve, legal affairs spokesman for the main opposition Conservative Party.

The deeply unpopular Iraq war remains Blair’s Achilles Heel, with many Britons believing he misled them over the extent of Saddam Hussein’s banned weapons program -- London’s main justification for joining the U.S.-led 2003 invasion.

The latest legal row taps directly into the hot election issue of Blair’s trustworthiness and echoes allegations that the government also pressed the country’s intelligence services to produce a clear-cut case for war.

The Goldsmith leak has ruined Blair’s attempts to focus the last days of the campaign on local issues like the economy, health and education. But analysts said it was unlikely to derail his bid for a third term.

Legal issue
The March 7, 2003 document shows Goldsmith cast doubt on the legal grounds of war just days before Blair ordered troops in.

Goldsmith said then “a court might well conclude” U.N. Security Council resolutions at the time did not authorize war.

“I remain of the opinion that the safest legal course would be to secure the adoption of a further resolution to authorize the use of force,” Goldsmith wrote.

But Goldsmith was not categorical, also saying Britain could build “a reasonable case” for war based on two earlier U.N. resolutions if it had “hard evidence” of wrongdoing by Saddam.

Ten days later, however, after Britain failed to obtain a new resolution, Goldsmith presented the cabinet and parliament with advice that the war was legal -- and mentioned no doubts.

“It is now clear that advice did change and we must now be told what or who changed it,” Conservative leader Michael Howard said, implying Goldsmith was leant on by Blair in his eagerness to win public and political support for the war.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell said: “The question is what caused the Attorney General to ... rid his mind of the doubts?”

He said parliament would not have backed war if it had known Goldsmith’s first thoughts.

Case for the defense
Blair, President George W. Bush’s closest foreign ally, has denied allegations Goldsmith bowed under political pressure.

“He never changed his mind. That is completely untrue,” Foreign Minister Jack Straw said on Wednesday.

Goldsmith himself said in a statement on Wednesday night that the leaked document supported the government’s case that it would be legal to go to war without a second U.N. resolution.

“It does not say the war was unlawful but confirms the conclusion I reached was that a sufficient basis for the use of force was established without a second resolution,” he said.

Newspapers have jumped on the affair.

Under the headline “Blair Lied and Lied Again”, the right-wing Daily Mail said the prime minister’s credibility had been “blown to shreds by the bombshell”.

The left-leaning Guardian said of the leaked advice: “it is in more ways than one, an extremely troubling document.

“Both cabinet and parliament were kept unforgivably in the dark. It looks rather worse than that: it looks as if they were deceived.”

Iraq, though, has yet to register in opinion polls.

Two new surveys on Thursday put Labour on 40 percent and the Conservatives on 33 and 31 percent respectively. The anti-war Liberal Democrats trailed with 20 and 21 percent in those polls.