Goldsmith faces calls to resign over Iraq

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The Independent Online

The attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, faced calls to resign last night as Tony Blair's legal justification for going to war against Iraq began to unravel.

The attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, faced calls to resign last night as Tony Blair's legal justification for going to war against Iraq began to unravel.

The Prime Minister once again refused calls yesterday to apologise for the Iraq conflict as some of his own backbenchers questioned whether he had misrepresented intelligence and gone to war illegally.

MPs said the "facts" about weapons of mass destruction on which the Government based its legal justification for war had been completely demolished by the Iraq Survey Group, which found there were no stockpiles.

A senior figure on the Butler inquiry into the intelligence failings over Iraq told The Independent that Lord Goldsmith "should consider his position" after the withdrawal of the intelligence claims that Saddam could ready weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes.

Before he gave his legal opinion about the war, Lord Goldsmith had asked Mr Blair for assurances that there were "strong factual grounds" backed up by "hard evidence" for concluding that Saddam had failed to comply with UN resolution 1441 requiring the Iraqi dictator to destroy his weapons of mass destruction. Lord Goldsmith had been reassured by the Prime Minister, but MPs last night said those grounds had been blown apart by the withdrawal of the 45-minute claim.

It was also disclosed yesterday that two senior Foreign Office legal advisers, in addition to its deputy legal adviser, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, went to Lord Goldsmith warning him of their fears that the war would be illegal, and subsequently resigned from the civil service.

A senior source on the Butler inquiry said: "The Attorney General must now consider his position. He is the one who gave the legal opinion, and it was challenged at the time by three legal officers."

In the Commons, one furious Labour MP said last night "We are going to get Blair over this."

Peter Mandelson, the European commissioner and close ally of Mr Blair, also appeared to distance himself from the Prime Minister's decision to invade Iraq without international agreement. Speaking in Budapest, he said: "The insurgency in Iraq would today have been a lesser problem had a second UN resolution been agreed."

Sir Menzies Campbell QC, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, called on the Government to publish the "facts" behind Mr Blair's assessment that Iraq was in "further material breach of its obligations". In a separate development, lawyers last night claimed that the Prime Minister had ignored the most recent evidence from the chief UN weapons inspector, Dr Hans Blix, on the eve of war when he declared that Saddam Hussein had not complied with security council resolutions. They said the Government had based its crucial judgements on outdated material and failed to take into account Dr Blix's suggestion that Iraq could yet meet United Nations demands.

Professor Phillipe Sands QC, a member of Cherie Blair's Matrix chambers and professor of international law at University College London, said the Prime Minister made his judgement based on evidence about Iraq from mid December 2002, before Dr Blix had written any reports from the field. Dr Blix suggested in the run up to war that inspectors had found no evidence ofWMD and that Baghdad had made some movement to try to satisfy UN inspectors.

Professor Sands said: "The Attorney General's advice that the Prime Minister was entitled to define a material breach is wrong. But ... the Attorney General did not require the Prime Minister to address his mind to the material provided by Hans Blix which tended to show that Iraq was not in material breach of resolution 1441."

Mr Blair had insisted the war was justified because of the threat posed by Saddam's WMD and the need to enforce compliance with the UN resolution. Leaked documents from the Foreign Office showed Mr Blair had given assurances to President George Bush that he would "not budge" from his support for the US objective of regime change in Iraq on 14 March 2002, a year before the war.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, called on Mr Blair to "clarify the position. Did he sign up to regime change in April 2002 at his meeting with President Bush in Texas? If he did, why was this policy - which is not acceptable in international law - kept secret from the British people."

The Labour MP Bob Wareing said: "You [Prime Minister] try to justify the illegal war against Iraq to those of us who opposed it on the grounds that if we had not gone to war, Saddam Hussein and his two sons would still have been in charge. How then do you explain your statement to this House on February 25, 2003: 'Even now, today, we are offering Saddam the prospect of voluntarily disarming through the United Nations. I detest his regime but even now he could save it by complying with the United Nations' demands'."