London — Prime Minister Tony Blair, trying to defuse a row over Iraq a week before Britain's general election, released his Attorney-General's advice on the legality of the U.S.-led war on Thursday – something he had long refused to do.
The announcement came after a TV channel said it had obtained a leaked copy of a memo sent to Mr. Blair from Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith in which he warned that the invasion could be deemed illegal without a second UN Security Council resolution specifically authorizing military action.
The document again thrust the ferocious debate about the U.S.-led invasion and Mr. Blair's integrity to the forefront of the election campaign. Mr. Blair, the Labour Partly Leader, accused the Conservatives of trying to deflect attention away from issues such as the economy, health and education.
He also insisted that he did not lie about the legal case for war in Iraq, but the opposition Conservative Party said the document proved he did.
The full text of the memo, which had been leaked to Channel 4 news, was released on the Prime Minister's Web site.
“You have probably got it all anyway. I see no reason not to publish it,” Mr. Blair told reporters.
He has insisted that Mr. Goldsmith was unequivocal in written advice to Parliament on March 17, 2003, that invading Iraq would be legal without a further UN resolution.
In Goldsmith's confidential memo written 10 days earlier to Mr. Blair, however, the Attorney-General warned that an invasion could be deemed illegal without a new resolution.
“The key thing was the Attorney-General advising it was lawful to proceed,” Mr. Blair said. “This so-called smoking gun has turned out to be a damp squib, because he did advise it was lawful to proceed.”
Conservative leader Michael Howard, who has called Mr. Blair a liar, said the document reinforced doubts about the Prime Minister's integrity.
“If you can't trust Mr. Blair on the decision to take the country to war, the most important decision a prime minister can take, how can you trust Mr. Blair on anything else ever again?” Mr. Howard told journalists.
Despite the argument about the legal advice, Mr. Howard affirmed that he thought it was right to go to war in Iraq because of Saddam Hussein's breaches of a succession of UN resolutions.
Political opponents have questioned whether Mr. Goldsmith was under pressure from Mr. Blair's office to change his mind in the final tense days leading up to the war.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw insisted that Mr. Goldsmith had “never changed his mind.”
He said Mr. Goldsmith had simply been able to form a firmer opinion as circumstances had changed during the 10-day period: Weapons inspectors had reported Iraq's failure to comply, France had made it clear it would not back a second resolution and Mr. Goldsmith had received “clear and strong factual evidence” that Iraq was in breach of its obligations.
Mr. Straw confirmed that “factual evidence” was given by Mr. Blair himself.
With a week to go to election day, polls show Labour with a healthy lead.
A survey conducted by pollster ICM for Thursday's edition of The Guardian newspaper put Labour support at 40 per cent, with the Conservatives at 33 per cent and the Liberal Democrats at 20 per cent. The margin of error was 3 percentage points.
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Thursday, April 28, 2005
Updated at 10:24 AM EST