I'm vindicated, says Short - but Blair stands by Baghdad reforms

Tony Blair insisted yesterday that Britain was acting lawfully in its occupation of Iraq as he was forced to deny fresh claims that he had ignored the Attorney General's advice on the issue.

However, Clare Short stepped up her attack on the Prime Minister by seizing on a leaked memo by Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, suggesting that British actions would be illegal without a new UN Security Council resolution. The memo warned that occupying powers should not attempt wide-ranging reforms of Iraq's administration, judicial system or the status of its public officials. The advice, published in this week's New Statesman magazine, was given to Mr Blair and other senior ministers on 26 March, the sixth day of the war.

"My view is that a further Security Council resolution is needed to authorise imposing reform and restructuring of Iraq and its government," Lord Goldsmith wrote.

Citing the two main pillars of relevant international law - the Geneva Convention and The Hague Regulations - Lord Goldsmith listed specifically the "limitations placed on the authority of an occupying power". These include"wide-ranging reforms of governmental and administrative structures", "any alterations in the status of public officials or judges" except in special cases, changes to penal laws, and "the imposition of major structural economic reforms".

He wrote: "The Government has concluded that the removal of the current Iraqi regime from power is necessary to secure disarmament, but the longer the occupation of Iraq continues, and the more the tasks undertaken by an interim administration depart from the main objective, the more difficult it will be to justify the lawfulness of the occupation."

The Tories and the Liberal Democrats called on the Government to publish the memo in full but Mr Blair insisted that Lord Goldsmith's advice had been that Britain had acted legally at all times in Iraq. "We would never act unlawfully in relation to this. For any prime minister or a Cabinet, in a situation as fraught and sensitive as this, to have advice from the Attorney General saying you are acting unlawfully, just to say 'well, we are not bothering with that, we are just carrying on', it is not a very credible position, to be honest, and I can absolutely assure you there is no question of us having engaged in such a thing," he said.

Mr Blair added that the new UN resolution had made the issue academic. "To be absolutely blunt, all these things have been overtaken by the UN resolution and I'm really pleased about this," he said.

But Ms Short, the former international development secretary, said the Government had breached international law. "I thought the Attorney General's advice was sacrosanct. It seems not," she told BBC Radio 4's The World at One. "The meetings that were convened by the US and the British representatives to start to establish an interim Iraqi authority clearly breached that advice."

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, argued that the Government had abided by the Attorney General's advice. "What the minute says, since it has been made public, is that a further Security Council resolution is needed to authorise imposing reform and the restructuring of Iraq and its government, with the key word being imposing," he said.

"We have not been doing that; what we have been seeking in the interim, before we get a Security Council resolution, is a consensual basis for very early stages of reform. But we have always made it clear that reform in any event is a matter for the Iraqi people."

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, was even more caustic, saying: "Does anybody think that we could have hung about for a couple of weeks while people lost their lives?"

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