Whatever Tony Blair may say, the Attorney General's advice to him on the occupation of Iraq undermines Britain and America's continuing role in forcing through a change of regime, international lawyers warned last night.
They said that the advice showed there was no legal justification for imposing a new regime in Iraq. Peter Carter QC, chairman of the Bar Council's human rights committee, said Lord Goldsmith was "spot on" because he suggested that "by invading Iraq to change or neutralise a regime is in breach of UN charter, Geneva Convention 4 and the 1907 Hague Regulations. And it is entirely invalid as a reason for being there."
Professor Phillipe Sands QC, an expert in international law, said that the question of whether the occupation was illegal had to be assessed on the basis of the Attorney General's advice. "The issue is whether there has been a fundamental restructuring engaged in the past four to five weeks. You can argue that either way."
Mr Carter made a distinction between the actions of the British and American forces. He said the British had been careful to follow legal advice by restricting their role to maintaining security and setting up a system for securing aid. "This is legitimate because they are facilitating the Iraqis to correct or create a government," he said. But he said the Americans had been less careful. "The awarding of development contracts to American companies is not authorised," he said.
Professor Sands said that it was clear from the memo that Clare Short, the former secretary of state for international development, was wrong to resign when she did. "If the issue of legality was decisive she should have resigned two months ago, not now," he said.
He said that Lord Goldsmith's advice was "absolutely correct" because it showed that the issue of legality was now a "factual question", whereas before the invasion it had been a purely legal one.
A spokeswoman for the Attorney General's office said last night: "We never comment on leaked documents. As he said on 12 May, the Attorney General is satisfied that the Government acted in accordance with international law."
Professor Sands was one of 16 academic lawyers who sent a letter to Downing Street before the invasion, questioning the justification for war under international law.