Straw denies blocking Iraq war Cabinet debate

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Indy Politics

Former foreign secretary Jack Straw today denied blocking detailed cabinet discussion on the attorney general's advice on the legality of military action against Iraq.

Making his second appearance before the Iraq Inquiry, he insisted he had no recollection of the then-international development secretary Clare Short's claim that she was "jeered" when she tried to question Lord Goldsmith's opinion.

Mr Straw, who is now the Justice Secretary, said that it was "simply untrue" to claim that the system of cabinet government had broken down under Tony Blair's leadership.

He also strongly defended his decision to overrule the advice of the senior Foreign Office legal adviser, Sir Michael, that the use of force would be illegal without a specific mandate from the United Nations.

The inquiry has previously released declassified documents showing how Mr Straw warned Lord Goldsmith not to disclose that the legal arguments were "finely balanced" when he presented his advice to the cabinet on March 17 2003 on the eve of the crucial Commons vote on war.

While Mr Straw acknowledged that he had been concerned about the possibility of leaks if ministers were told, he insisted that they had been fully aware of the issues involved.

He said that there had been an intense public debate whether UN Security Council resolution 1441, passed the previous November, provided sufficient authorisation for the use of force without the need for a second resolution.

"The cabinet were fully aware that the arguments were evenly balanced. It was impossible to open a newspaper without being fully aware of the balance of the arguments," he said.

"No-one was unaware of the fact that there had been and was continuing an intense legal debate about the interpretation of 1441."

He said that the cabinet included a number of "strong-minded people" - among them Gordon Brown, John Prescott, David Blunkett and Charles Clarke - who were all capable of raising any concerns they had.

"These weren't wilting violets, their judgment was that it was not necessary to go into the process by which Peter Goldsmith came to his view," he said.

"There is nothing unusual at all about legal decisions being finely balanced. What the cabinet wanted to know and needed to know was what was the decision.

"Nobody was preventing anybody from asking the attorney - including Clare Short - what the position was. In the event, they chose not to."

He said that he had no recollection of Ms Short being "jeered" and told to be quiet when she tried to raise the issue, as she claimed when she gave evidence last week.

"I don't challenge her recollection but that it is not my recollection. This was a very serious cabinet meeting. People weren't, as I recall, going off with that kind of behaviour. We all understood the gravity of the decision," he said.

Mr Straw said he believed that he had been entitled to reject Sir Michael Wood's advice that military action was illegal without a further Security Council resolution.

He said Sir Michael had given "contradictory" advice - noting in an earlier memorandum that there were two possible views on the legality of military action on the basis of 1441 alone.

"The legal advice he offered, frankly, was contradictory and I think I was entitled to raise that," he said.

Mr Straw acknowledged he was not an international lawyer - as Sir Michael's deputy Elizabeth Wilmshurst had pointed out - but said he believed his close involvement in the negotiations on 1441 meant he was able to take a view.

"Yes, I am not an international lawyer but I was able to bring something to the party, which was an intense knowledge of the negotiating history," he said.

"My view from having been involved in the negotiations line by line, word by word, comma by comma, was that there was an overwhelming argument that 1441 required a second stage but not a second resolution."

He said it had always been the case that the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, would have to rule on whether military action was legal and until he did, the question would be open to doubt.

"The final decision on the lawfulness of military action was one that was going to be taken by the attorney general and the attorney general alone," he said.

"Where I disagreed with him (Sir Michael) was that he had the right over and above the attorney general to say what was or was not lawful.

"In the absence of a decision by the attorney general, there had to be doubt. That was what I thought to be strange."

The inquiry heard repeated suggestions that former American president George Bush had decided to invade Iraq "come what may" by early 2003.

Panel member Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, a military historian, urged Mr Straw several times to re-examine notes of his conversations with then-US secretary of state Colin Powell to confirm this.

Sir Lawrence hinted that documents seen by the inquiry - but not made public - show Mr Bush planned to attack Iraq even if UN weapons inspector Hans Blix said Saddam Hussein was complying with resolution 1441.

He asked Mr Straw: "Can you start by confirming that you knew that military action was planned by the US for the middle of March come what may?

"You were copied in, presumably, to reports of conversations between the prime minister and the president?"

The former foreign secretary replied: "Yes, I don't think there was any key document that I should have seen that I didn't."

Sir Lawrence went on to ask him: "Was there any point where Powell said to you that even if Iraq complied, president Bush had already made a decision that he intended to go to war?"

Mr Straw responded: "Certainly not to the best of my recollection."

The historian then said: "I was going to suggest you might want to look through your conversations and check."

Mr Straw said: "I will go through the records because I think you are trying to tell me something."

Sir Lawrence went on: "Please do check, because I don't think the suggestion is what the British position would have been, it's whether the president's own mind was made up in a particular direction."

The inquiry panel has been given access to tens of thousands of pages of Government documents, the vast majority of which have not been made public.

Papers relating to discussions between British ministers and foreign politicians are particularly sensitive.

Inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot said Mr Straw was the only minister kept fully informed throughout the period before the war by former prime minister Tony Blair.

He asked him: "Do you think that with hindsight, and looking ahead as a lesson, a larger group than two would have made for a more effective and better-delivered process?"

Mr Straw admitted if it had been up to him, he would have set up a formal Cabinet committee at an early stage to discuss the issues.

He said: "If we had had a more formal process, would that have made it more legitimate? Would that have led to fewer questions in this inquiry?

"Almost certainly, yes."