Hurd under fire for backing raid on Iraq: US warns Baghdad against revenge as MPs dispute the legality of cruise missile strike

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DOUGLAS HURD faced criticism from all sides for supporting the United States' cruise missile attack on Baghdad as it emerged at Westminster that the Government had failed to seek an opinion from the Law Officers before endorsing the raid's legality.

Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders broke the bilateral support which existed for the 1991 Gulf war and challenged the legality of the missile strike under Article 51 of the United Nations charter allowing action in self defence.

The attack was in retaliation for an assassination attempt on George Bush, the former US president.

George Robertson, a Labour foreign affairs spokesman, said it was 'dubious in legality and questionable in morality'. Some Tory MPs also expressed concern at the diplomatic damage in the Middle East.

The Foreign Secretary said 'force may in our judgement be used in self-defence against threats to one's nationals'. The Prime Minister's office later said it agreed with the action, but no legal opinion was given by the Law Officers, the senior ministers led by the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell. The failure to consult them will be pursued by the opposition parties.

Sir David Steel, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on foreign affairs, protested that Article 51 was not intended to cover retaliation two months after an abortive assassination attempt. Mr Hurd insisted: 'This operation was a justified and proportionate exercise of the right of self-defence and a necessary warning to Iraq that state terrorism cannot and will not be tolerated.'

President Bill Clinton yesterday defended the strike on Baghdad, saying it had crippled Iraq's intelligence operations and vowing to do 'everything we possibly can' to stamp out terrorism. His claim was, however, disputed by some intelligence analysts in Washington. 'I don't think you cripple any Iraqi operation if you just hit a building when people aren't there,' said David Kay, who headed a UN special commission that inspected Iraq's nuclear programme after the Gulf war. 'The strength of any intelligence operation isn't in a building, it's in the people who run it.'

As the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt steams towards the Red Sea, the US Vice-President, Al Gore, warned Saddam Hussein that the US was ready to respond to any Iraqi revenge. 'It would be unwise for Saddam to retaliate in any capacity because that would receive a response,' Mr Gore said.

A US Navy officer said the air wing on the Roosevelt will fly over southern Iraq in Operation Southern Watch, the allied enforcement of a ban on Iraqi flights in the area.

In New York yesterday, Iraq lodged a formal protest with the UN Security Council over the raid and accused the US of 'state terrorism and blackmail'. In a letter from the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Mohammed Said al-Sahaf said: 'This was a deliberate terrorist act perpetrated by the Government of the United States of America on grounds which were spurious and unjustified.'

The letter was released one day after the US briefed the Security Council on evidence it says proves conclusively that Iraq masterminded a plot to kill Mr Bush. Most members of the Council, with the marked exception of China, supported the US.

A British official who arrived in Baghdad after the raid visited three Britons held in jail there yesterday and said they all appeared well.

'We've been to the prison. We've seen the prisoners and they're fit and well,' Stephen Howarth, head of the Foreign Office consular department, said. He is the most senior British official to visit Iraq since the Gulf war.

Inside Parliament, page 6

After the raid, page 11

Letters, page 17

Andrew Marr, page 19

(Photograph omitted)