Straw under fire over claim he opposed war

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Indy Politics

Jack Straw was under intense pressure to clarify his position over the war in Iraq last night after it was claimed he had advised Tony Blair against sending British troops days before the invasion began.

The Foreign Secretary wrote a secret memo to Mr Blair, proposing a "Plan B", under which Britain would not join combat operations but instead offer "political and moral" backing for war.

The memo, written after the Azores summit in March, urged the Prime Minister to consider alternative strategies to war without the backing of a second UN Security Council resolution.

The memorandum instead proposed that troops would join peace-keeping duties and help reconstruct Iraq after the fall of Saddam. But Mr Blair flatly rejected the advice, and asked Mr Straw to reaffirm his backing for war, according to a new book by the political commentator John Kampfner.

Mr Straw did not offer his own version of events yesterday, fuelling the controversy.

The allegations prompted renewed opposition calls for a full public inquiry into the run- up to the invasion of Iraq. They will increase pressure on Mr Blair, after the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee disclosed last week that he went to war despite intelligence that it could increase the chance of chemical or biological weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: "If these reports are true, they emphasise how much the decision to go to war against Iraq was the Prime Minister's. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction capable of being deployed within 45 minutes continues to undermine the case for war for which the Prime Minister argued so vehemently. Jack Straw's apparent reservations simply mirror the anxieties of the whole country."

Michael Ancram, shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "This raises serious questions about information available to the Foreign Office, as opposed to information available to the Prime Minister, and indicates again the importance of holding a full independent judicial inquiry in order for the public to be told the whole truth and to restore confidence."

Friends of Mr Straw emphasised that the Foreign Secretary was merely outlining possible alternatives to British involvement in military action if the Government had lost the Commons vote which authorised war. But another source said yesterday: "He wrote to Tony in the last few days saying, 'We don't have to do this'."

The book, Blair's Wars, serialised in The Mail on Sunday, alleges that Mr Blair had secretly agreed to go to war as early as April 2002, during a summit with President George Bush in Texas. It claims that Mr Blair had doubts about intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and had evidence that Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological capability was diminishing.

The Foreign Office insisted that Mr Straw had backed the war throughout. A spokesman said: "The Foreign Secretary believes as strongly today as he did when the decision was taken that military action was entirely justified by Saddam Hussein's defiance of the United Nations and it was the right thing to do.

"There were lots of discussions about it and no doubt all sorts of concerns were expressed on an individual basis, but in terms of the Cabinet, the Cabinet was united with the Foreign Secretary right alongside the Prime Minister in taking us in that direction." Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, told Sky News that Mr Straw had strongly supported Mr Blair at cabinet meetings.

The furore came as Lord Hutton prepared to take fresh evidence from senior figures in the intelligence services about the run-up to war. Air Marshal Sir Joe French, former chief of defence intelligence, and his deputy, Tony Cragg, are expected to be asked to explain why dissent about the dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was suppressed.

The inquiry will also hear from Greg Dyke, the BBC director general, who is likely to be asked about the BBC's refusal to apologise for claims that Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's director of communications, had "sexed-up" the September dossier.