Iraq war 'will haunt Blair's legacy like Suez'

Tony Blair was warned that his place in history will be "haunted" by Iraq, after fresh evidence emerged that he was secretly planning to join a US-led war against Saddam Hussein eight months before the invasion.

Leaked Downing Street papers disclosed yesterday that the Prime Minister was privately contemplating "regime change" in Iraq in July 2002, while publicly insisting Saddam could avoid war if he complied with United Nations resolutions.

The documents will bolster accusations by the war's opponents that Mr Blair agreed to support military intervention at a meeting with George Bush at the President's Texas ranch back in April 2002, a charge denied by the Government.

In a further blow , the Chief of Defence Staff at the time of the war, Admiral Sir Michael (now Lord) Boyce, expressed his concerns the war might have been illegal.

The disclosures - days after the leak of the Attorney General's private warning that the war could be unlawful - forced the Prime Minister on the defensive and he attempted to switch the focus of the election campaign to domestic issues. The papers leaked to The Sunday Times pertained to a meeting on 23 July 2002, chaired by Mr Blair, of his inner circle. Present were Lord Boyce, Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, and John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

According to the documents, marked "extremely sensitive", Sir Richard told the meeting that "intelligence and facts were being fixed around policy" by the US administration

Mr Straw warned that the case for military action was "thin", adding that Saddam was not "threatening his neighbours and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran". Mr Straw suggested they should "work up" an ultimatum about weapons inspectors that would "help with the legal justification".

The Prime Minister told the meeting: "If the political context were right, people would support regime change." He said the key issues were "whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan space to work".

The minute of the meeting concluded: "We should work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action.

The Liberal Democrats said the memo proved the Government had been bent on military action. Sir Menzies Campbell, the foreign affairs spokesman, said: "It's clear they agreed to illegal regime change with the Bush administration and deliberately set out to manufacture circumstances that would allow them to claim a justification to go to war."

Charles Kennedy, the party leader, told a rally yesterday in Newbury, Berkshire: "Tony Blair's authority is seriously undermined by Iraq. Even if he wins a third term, he is now going to be a lame duck prime minister. Iraq will haunt his premiership and his legacy, just as Suez did for Sir Anthony Eden."

Liam Fox, the Tory party co-chairman, said the leaks would keep trust on the agenda. "If people feel Tony Blair misled them on taxes, tuition fees and the Iraq war, then they can send him a message that failing to tell the truth will not be tolerated," he said.

But Mr Blair told BBC1's Breakfast With Frost: "The idea that we had decided definitively for military action at that stage is wrong and disproved by the fact that, several months later, we went back to the United Nations to get a final resolution and actually the conflict didn't begin until four months after that."

In a later radio interview, Mr Blair said the death of British soldiers was "a deeply heavy responsibility" but he could not apologise for taking the country to war. "If we had not done so the hundreds of thousands of people - we just had another mass grave in Iraq uncovered today - who died under Saddam would have carried on dying."

Was it always about regime change?

* "If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work."

Tony Blair in leaked minutes to a July 2002 meeting with military and intelligence

* "The ending of this regime would be the cause of regret for no one other than Saddam. But our purpose is disarmament. No one wants military conflict. Disarmament of all WMD is the demand."

Blair at Commons debate, September 2002

* "If Saddam Hussein co-operates, if he's serious about disarmament, then he can stay in power ... But if you do go to war it is not just a question of lives being lost. If it leads to the removal of a dictator who runs his country like a butcher's shop then lives will be saved as well."

Blair's official spokesman, February 2003

* "I must stress that the lawfulness of military action depends not only on the existence of a legal basis, but also on the question of proportionality... Regime change cannot be the objective of military action."

Lord Goldsmith's advice to Blair in March 2003