Attorney General conceded doubts over legality of war

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The Attorney General's secret legal advice on Iraq conceded that a key United Nations resolution on the issue did not automatically authorise war, a government memo has suggested.

A Foreign Office memorandum, giving detailed reasons behind Lord Goldsmith's opinion, made clear that there was no "automaticity" in resolution 1441 to justify the use of force.

The resolution, passed in November 2002 by the UN Security Council, gave Saddam Hussein a final opportunity to comply with disarmament demands and has been used by Tony Blair as legal cover for last year's war .

The Foreign Office memo, which has been submitted to a Commons select committee, was seized on by critics as evidence that important caveats in the legal advice were excluded from the summary published by the Government.

The controversy emerged as Mr Blair came under fire again in the Commons yesterday for refusing to publish the Attorney General's opinion in full. Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said that unless the full advice was made public there was a danger that voters would think it had been "sexed up".

After pressure from military chiefs, the Attorney General published a short summary of his legal opinion on 17 March, three days before the war began. The 358-word summary gave a rough outline of the case for military action, stating that UN resolution 1441 authorised the use of force because it revived earlier resolutions passed at the end of the Gulf War in 1991. No further UN resolutions were needed, the summary suggested.

But on the same day that the summary was published, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, wrote a little-noticed letter to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, including what he described as a paper which gave more detail. The paper makes the point that earlier UN resolutions 687 and 687 from the Gulf War allowed force to be used against Iraq. The advice goes on to state that UN resolution 1441 warned of "serious consequences" if Iraq failed to comply with its disarmament obligations.

In a passage that in effect agrees with arguments made at the time by critics such as France and Russia, the Foreign Office paper adds: "It is important to stress that SCR 1441 did not revive the 678 authorisation immediately upon its adoption. There was no 'automaticity'. The resolution afforded Iraq a final opportunity to comply and it provided for any failure by Iraq to be 'considered' by the Security Council." The paper goes on to argue that the lack of automatic force of 1441 "does not mean that no further action can be taken without a new resolution" of the Security Council.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said last night that the memo's admission that UN resolution 1441 gave no automatic authority for war was "extremely significant".

"A possible inference to be drawn from this document is that the Attorney General too shared the view that 1441 did not create 'automaticity'," he said. "We can't be sure, but it is yet another compelling piece of information justifying the publication of the whole of the Attorney General's advice."