Party leaders split over attack

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JOHN MAJOR gave his unequivocal support for the cruise missile attack on Baghdad despite some Tory concern over the extent to which Britain was consulted before the United States acted.

But John Smith, the Labour leader, had 'grave doubts' about the wisdom and legality of the attack. He said it 'does not seem to fall directly under any United Nations authorisation and its justification in international law is highly questionable. We believe that where necessary any action against Iraq should be governed strictly by decisions of the UN.'

Labour leaders will today demand a Commons statement by Douglas Hurd, endangering the consensus which existed over the Gulf war. They intend to press the Foreign Secretary to disclose how much warning President Bill Clinton gave Mr Major about the attack.

George Robertson, the Labour foreign affairs spokesman, said: 'It doesn't appear the US told them directly. From what Major said and what Hurd said, it would appear they got a message from someone telephoning the Ambassador in Washington 20 minutes before the attack.'

Although there was no Tory dissent, those doubts were shared by leading Tory sources. 'The Government's reaction is trying to cover up the fact that they weren't aware of what was going on. We were caught flat-footed,' a ministerial source said.

Downing Street said Mr Major was informed before the attack. The Prime Minister said: 'I think one has to make it clear to international criminals like Saddam Hussein that that sort of behaviour will not be tolerated. If we just stand aside and accept that sort of behaviour, what is to stop that happening again? . . The United States were right and they have my full support.'

Mr Hurd denied Britain had not been consulted. He said: 'The Americans have discussed the possibility with us for some time now, depending on how their investigation came out. We are clear they are justified in what they do.'

The Foreign Secretary, interviewed on BBC radio, said Britain had not seen the US evidence of the bomb plot to assassinate President George Bush. 'We haven't seen the evidence, but we have been kept in touch with the investigation. They are satisfied that evidence is very clear. They have done their own investigation and we are satisfied as a result of that.'

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, compared the action with the F-111 attack on Colonel Muammar Gadaffi's headquarters in Tripoli. 'That was neither a military nor a dipolomatic success. Arabs in the Gulf will be asking the question why the US was willing to bomb Muslims in Baghdad but unwilling to use them to protect Muslims in Bosnia,' Mr Campbell said.