Leading article: A Prime Minister's duty

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The Independent Online

The families whose open letter we publish today have all lost a son, a husband, a father or a brother to the war in Iraq. They have one request: a face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister who was so convinced of the threat presented by Saddam Hussein that he decided war was the only option.

The grief, even anger, of these bereaved families is entirely comprehensible. Far less comprehensible is the refusal of the Prime Minister and most members of the Government to meet those who have paid the real price of their policy. Ministers' avoidance of all but chance encounters with bereaved relatives leaves the impression that they are embarrassed to face up to their responsibility.

Mr Blair has never invited relatives of Iraq casualties to Downing Street to acknowledge their loss. He has not visited the injured in hospital. He has not once stood on the tarmac as the flag-draped coffins were unloaded with military honours. The armed forces have been left to look after their own. In the United States, President Bush has similarly turned his back.

When 18 US servicemen were killed in Somalia in a botched operation, the then President, Bill Clinton, was at the airport to deliver the oration at a state ceremony. He had ordered the troops to Somalia; he had approved the operation; he took responsibility. His presence there, and his address, helped to define the first term of his presidency.

Why have political leaders, on both sides of the Atlantic, been so loath publicly to accept the human consequences of their decision? Mr Blair's closest encounter was the only one he could not avoid: with Reg Keyes, the bereaved father who stood against him in the general election and used his post-poll speech to attack the war.

We know that with professional servicemen there will always be the argument that death and injury are risks of the job. We have a volunteer army; anyone who signs up does so in the full knowledge that they could be sent into combat. This is what they are trained for; this is what they are paid for; this is their duty. And, of course, no service personnel can pick and choose where or whether they fight, depending on their approval of the cause.

These families, and many others, would contend that this war is different because it was built on premises that turned out to be false. The Government's resort to military action in defiance of the UN and its refusal to publish the Attorney General's legal advice in full also make it arguable that in international law, if not in the law of our own land, this war was illegal. The Prime Minister disagrees. He should have the grace, and the guts, to hear the contrary view from the families.