Revealed: documents show Blair's secret plans for war

PM decided on conflict from the start. Blair told war illegal in March 2002. Latest leak confirms Goldsmith doubts
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Tony Blair had resolved to send British troops into action alongside US forces eight months before the Iraq War began, despite a clear warning from the Foreign Office that the conflict could be illegal.

Tony Blair had resolved to send British troops into action alongside US forces eight months before the Iraq War began, despite a clear warning from the Foreign Office that the conflict could be illegal.

A damning minute leaked to a Sunday newspaper reveals that in July 2002, a few weeks after meeting George Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Mr Blair summoned his closest aides for what amounted to a council of war. The minute reveals the head of British intelligence reported that President Bush had firmly made up his mind to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein, adding that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy".

At the same time, a document obtained by this newspaper reveals the Foreign Office legal advice given to Mr Blair in March 2002, before he travelled to meet Mr Bush at his Texas ranch. It contains many of the reservations listed nearly a year later by the Attorney General in his confidential advice to the Prime Minister, which the Government was forced to publish last week, including the warning that the US government took a different view of international law from Britain or virtually any other country.

The advice, also put before the July meeting, was drawn up in part by Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the Foreign Office's deputy legal adviser, who resigned on the eve of war in protest at what she called a "crime of aggression".

The latest revelations could scarcely have come at a worse time for Labour, with a general election only four days away and the opposition parties lining up to attack the Prime Ministers credibility. Two polls last night showed the gap between Labour and Conservatives narrowing to 3per cent.

The minute revealed last night was of a meeting held in Downing Street on 23 July 2002. Signed by the Prime Minister's foreign policy adviser, Matthew Rycroft. It concluded: "We should work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action. But we needed a fuller picture of US planning before we could take any further decisions."

The minute records that the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, had warned that the case against Saddam was "thin". He suggested that the Iraqi dictator should be forced into a corner by demanding the return of the UN weapons inspectors: if he refused, or the inspectors found WMD, there would be good cause for war.

The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith ­ who took part in the meeting ­ warned then that "the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action". But the Prime Minister countered that "regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD".

The document ended with the admonition: "We must not ignore the legal issues", adding that "the Attorney General would consider legal advice". The Government has consistently refused to say when the Attorney General was first asked for an opinion on the legality of war.

Eight months later, Lord Goldsmith drew up his 13 page legal opinion, released by Downing Street last week, which echoed many of the doubts expressed in the earlier Foreign Office brief. The Attorney General echoes the Foreign Office paper, rejecting US claims to be able to decide whether Iraq was in breach of UN resolutions. The Americans were alone in this position, he said, before dramatically altering his opinion 10 days later.

Mr Blair was challenged on whether he had seen Foreign Office legal advice in a BBC interview with Jeremy Paxman on 20 April. He replied: "No, I had the Attorney General's advice to guide me." In fact, Mr Blair had seen the Foreign Office advice as early as 8 March 2002, in an annex to a secret Cabinet Office "options paper". That annex is published in The Independent on Sunday for the first time today.

Asked to account for the discrepancy, a Downing Street spokesman said: "The Prime Minister accepts his legal advice from the Attorney General, not from individual departments. We are not going to comment on any papers prepared for specific meetings."

Those present at the 23 July meeting, alongside Mr Blair and Mr Straw, included Lord Goldsmith, the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, and military and intelligence chiefs, according to the minute leaked to The Sunday Times.

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