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Goldsmith told Blair 'war could be illegal'

By Francis Elliott, Severin Carrell and Andy McSmith

Tony Blair was at the centre of a fresh row last night over the legality of the war in Iraq, as a new report claimed the Prime Minister was warned that the conflict breached international law.

As opposition politicians and senior Labour figures intensified pressure on Mr Blair to publish in full the advice given by the Attorney General, the issue of the war in Iraq was propelled to the centre stage of the election campaign after a Sunday newspaper alleged that he was told the military action could be ruled illegal.

Today's Mail on Sunday claims to list six "caveats" that were stripped from a summary of the advice published 10 days later on the eve of a crucial parliamentary debate on the war.

They reportedly included warnings that only the United Nations could judge whether Saddam Hussein had defied its order to disarm and that Mr Blair could not rely on the American position that the war was legal.

The disclosure prompted renewed calls for the Government to publish the full advice, to settle once and for all the question of whether Mr Blair misled the country into going to war.

Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary who resigned in protest as Leader of the Commons over the war in Iraq, said: "Many weeks ago, I urged the Government to publish the advice and said at the time that it was inevitable that it was going to become public. I deeply regret that the Government has left this issue to fester, to the point at which it has become public at the worst possible moment for the Government.

"They should've done it in their own time, and made a clean breast of it."

"I resigned when it became evident that we couldn't get a second UN resolution. If this is indeed what the Attorney General said to the Prime Minister at the time, perhaps he should've resigned too."

The fresh claims over the war's legality come at a very critical stage in the campaign. Michael Howard accused Mr Blair of telling lies yesterday as the fight for votes enters a bitter final phase, saying that he could "not even tell the truth" over the war.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, will turn to the issue in a speech tomorrow as the party seeks to capitalise on its opposition to the Iraq war.

He joined the chorus of calls last night for Mr Blair to go ahead and publish the legal advice in full. "Failure to do so further undermines our trust in everything that we have been told about the war in Iraq."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the party's foreign affairs spokesman, added: "Trust in the Prime Minister, particularly over the legality of the war, depends on full disclosure of the Attorney General's advice and his thinking. Only the Prime Minister knows if he lied but the British people are justified in their continuing scepticism."

Dominic Grieve, the Tories' shadow Attorney General, said: "This confirms what we believed to be the position on March 7 and makes it all the more urgent we discover what happened in the next 10 days. The question is: did the Prime Minister ignore, deceive or coerce the Attorney General?"

Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said the issue raised the "most serious questions" about the legality of the war and the "honesty of the Prime Minister".

The Attorney General's office refused to comment directly on the new disclosures, and repeated its insistence that Lord Goldsmith had not bowed to political pressure to change his views. His spokeswoman said: "The Attorney General presented his view to Cabinet on 17 March 2003 that military action in Iraq would be lawful. It was his own independent view. Legal advice is confidential, protected by legal professional privilege and we don't comment on the process of giving legal advice.

"The statement of 17 March 2003 never purported to be a summary of the Attorney General's advice."

A Downing Street spokesman said: "The Attorney General has always stressed that the war was legal and that he arrived at that judgment independently."

However, Michael Howard claimed that Mr Blair's character has become an election issue, as Tories demanded that he clarify his role in the public naming of Dr David Kelly, after the Prime Minister's claim last week that he had "no choice" but to disclose his identity.