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US told UK Attorney General to alter legal advice on Iraq war

By James Cusick, Westminster Editor

The attorney general initially told Tony Blair that an invasion of Iraq would be illegal without a new resolution from the United Nations and only overturned his advice when Washington ordered Downing Street to find legal advice which would justify the war. The devastating claim will be made by eminent QC and Labour peer Baroness Helena Kennedy in a television interview today.

It is one of a series of attacks which put Blair under renewed and increasing pressure to reveal full details of the legal backing for the war against Iraq.

Lawyers, including one from Cherie Blair’s legal chambers, Matrix, will demand improved compensation and an inquiry into the deaths of Iraqi civilians killed by British troops, which could raise the spectre of the government being forced to disclose its advice on the legality of the war.

It is widely believed that the government’s reluctance to do this was behind its decision to drop all charges against GCHQ whistleblower Katherine Gun last week.

The environmental group, Greenpeace is also demanding access to Lord Goldsmith’s advice in order to defend 14 activists due to appear in court in connection with anti-war protests carried out last year.

Former cabinet minister Clare Short continued her relentless attack on Blair when she described the way attorney general Lord Goldsmith’s “truncated opinion authorising war appeared at the very last minute” as “very odd”.

Together, the new developments signal that the legal case for the allied invasion of Iraq without a specific UN instruction authorising them to do so has become the most dangerous threat to the Prime Minister and is unlikely to go away.

Kennedy’s claims, which will be made this morning in an interview on GMTV, are arguably the most damaging. Her position as a member of the highest echelons of the legal community will add credence to her claims that the British government could find only two senior lawyers in the UK prepared to back the case for the invasion.

Baroness Kennedy points out that Lord Goldsmith was a commercial lawyer with no experience of international law and initially relied heavily on the advice of lawyers within the Foreign Office in the months before the war. It is widely believed that advice overwhelmingly warned against invading without a UN resolution.

She claims that when Washington was told of this advice their response was succinct: find a new lawyer.

Goldsmith then turned to Professor Christopher Greenwood of the London School of Economics, who was known to support the invasion. Greenwood was already on record as stating: “It would be highly desirable to have a second UN resolution because that puts the matter beyond serious question. But if that’s not possible, I would support the use of force without the resolution.’’

After consulting Greenwood, Goldsmith told the cabinet an invasion could take place within international law without the new UN resolution.

However, sacked Labour MP George Galloway insisted yesterday that Goldsmith warned ministers that his advice relied on the accuracy of intelligence information that Saddam posed a serious threat to British interest – information which has since been discredited.

Baroness Kennedy says Blair is being “haunted” by the fallout of a war “that will just not go away”.

Clare Short yesterday said Foreign Office lawyers disagreed on the legality of war and that senior officials in Whitehall were “worried that they were being asked to prepare for illegal action”.

After her disclosure that she had seen transcripts of material taken in bugging operations conducted inside the office of the secretary general of the UN, Kofi Annan, it remained a possibility she would either be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act or even be thrown out of the Labour Party.

Yesterday the chairman of the Labour party, Ian McCartney, appeared to rule out any party censure. “I’m not going to make her a martyr,” he told BBC Scotland.

Lord Alexander of Weedon QC, a leading peer and lawyer, yesterday described the content of Lord Goldsmith advice as “the most important legal opinion of the last 50 years”. He said without it the war would not have gone ahead and 20,000 Iraqis would not have been killed.

29 February 2004