US told Britain to get new legal opinion on Iraq war, book claims

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The United States told Britain to get a new legal opinion to back war in Iraq after Foreign Office experts had advised that military action would be illegal without a second UN resolution, a senior government source has revealed.

After the warning, Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, approached one of only two British lawyers who took a "hawkish" view of international law. The Government's top law officer then based his own legal opinion authorising the Iraq invasion on the new advice, the Whitehall source has said.

The detailed revelations from the source will appear this week in a book by Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, a Labour peer and lawyer, on the use and abuse of the law by governments. The book, Just Law, reveals that the Americans told Britain in the run-up to the war early last year that it should "get yourself some different lawyers".

"In the weeks before the war, the British Government conveyed to Washington its concerns about the war, explaining that the preponderance of its legal opinion was that war would be unlawful without a second resolution of the Security Council," the book says.

Lady Kennedy, who previewed some of the claims yesterday, said the "preponderance" of legal opinion within the Foreign Office was that war would be unlawful if it was not in self-defence, if there was not an imminent threat directly to the UK, or if there was no second UN resolution. "I certainly know that ... by the end of January, it was still the position. My source said to me: 'Law is the glue. We have to have a second resolution,'" Lady Kennedy told The Independent.

Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the deputy legal adviser at the Foreign Office who resigned when the war started, felt strongly that war would be illegal. Her boss at the FCO felt that a range of opinions could be put forward to ministers.

After the warning from the US, and when a second resolution looked unlikely, the Attorney General sought new advice and gained it from Professor Christopher Greenwood at the London School of Economics. "Legal advice was sought from outside of that circle, and went beyond to somebody who was known was more hawkish," Lady Kennedy told the GMTV Sunday programme.

"Professor Greenwood's opinion, that Britain could rely on UN resolutions from the Gulf War of 1991 to authorise the use of force, then became the basis for the Attorney General's own advice to Tony Blair. When they [the UK Government] told Washington that their legal advice was suggesting illegality, they were told that they should look for further legal advice," Lady Kennedy said.

Professor Greenwood declined to comment on suggestions that he may have been consulted by Lord Goldsmith.

Robin Cook, a former foreign secretary, said Lord Goldsmith should reveal what evidence he had that WMD were in Iraq as his opinion was based on the existence of an urgent threat.