A government at bay over Iraq war legality

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The Iraq war was thrust to the top of the election agenda last night after the Attorney General's advice to the Prime Minister over the legality of the conflict was leaked.

The Iraq war was thrust to the top of the election agenda last night after the Attorney General's advice to the Prime Minister over the legality of the conflict was leaked.

The leak sparked the most bitter personal attacks on Mr Blair of the campaign so far with Michael Howard, the Tory leader, calling the Prime Minister a "liar". Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said it would put trust in Mr Blair at the heart of the election and turn the contest into a referendum on Mr Blair's integrity.

Sensing that the tide could swing against Mr Blair, the Liberal Democrats today publish anti-war advertisements depicting Tony Blair and George Bush smiling together with the message: "Never again".

Mr Kennedy will call for a fresh Falklands-style public inquiry into Mr Blair's conduct over the war. "Tony Blair claims his government has been open and straightforward on Iraq but every piece of information has been wrung out of them in the face of stiff resistance," he will say. "It took the death of David Kelly before we found out the truth behind the dodgy dossier and the infamous 45-minute claim.

"It is this Labour government which took the decision to send our troops to Iraq. It is they who must be held accountable."

A Liberal Democrat strategist said today's attack on the Government over Iraq had been planned. "We delayed the campaign on Iraq because we didn't want to be seen as a one-trick pony, but this leak underlines our case that the war was illegal."

The leak revealed that 12 days before Britain went to war, Lord Goldsmith warned Mr Blair in a 13-page memo of six reasons why the war could be illegal. In spite of assurances that the Attorney General had been "unequivocal" in saying that the war would be legal, Lord Goldsmith said Britain could be challenged under international law because it was up to the UN, not Mr Blair, to decide whether Saddam Hussein was in breach of UN resolutions. He said it would be "safer'' to obtain a second resolution to justify using military force.

Lord Goldsmith also cast doubt on the earlier UN resolution secured at the time military action was used against Saddam to free Kuwait in 1990 of Iraqi forces as the basis for fresh military action. Ministers have repeatedly insisted that resolution 678 allowed military action to be used, but doubts were cast on the legality of such action by Lord Goldsmith.

Lord Goldsmith's hitherto unpublished advice to Mr Blair appeared to contradict the assurances given to the Cabinet in a two-page report on 17 March and repeated to Parliament that the Government's most senior law officer was unequivocal.

The Independent has learnt that the Government is also facing a potentially explosive challenge over its refusal to disclose the date on which Mr Blair first sought the Attorney General's advice on the legality of the war. The challenge came from the leading human rights lawyer, Lord Lester QC, who said the date could show that Mr Blair decided to go war much earlier than previously disclosed, possibly after he returned from President Bush's Texas ranch in 2002.

Ann Abrahams, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, upheld a complaint about the Government's refusal to disclose the date, and the Government's deadline for releasing the information expired on Friday.

Lord Lester will today apply to the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas for the release of the date under the Freedom of Information Act. "It must be pure political embarrassment which is causing them to defy the Ombudsman's findings," he said. "It is an extremely rare thing to do and completely unacceptable. What are they trying to hide?" A senior Labour strategist dismissed allegations that there had been a cover-up about the war as "garbage". Mr Blair and Gordon Brown will refocus on the economy in British cities today.

The former US president Bill Clinton, in a live satellite link from New York to a Labour rally in London, urged "disillusioned" Labour voters not to sit back and abstain from voting on 5 May.

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