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New controversy over Iraq forces Blair from his chosen battlefields

By Andrew Grice, Political Editor

26 April 2005

Tony Blair was forced on the defensive over Iraq as he angrily refused to apologise for the war and appealed to his critics to stop questioning his integrity.

Labour's plan to ensure the final full week of the election campaign was dominated by the economy and education was scuppered when the Prime Minister faced tough questions over the fresh doubts about the legality of the conflict.

He told a press conference: "I know there's a disagreement over Iraq. That disagreement we will never resolve, but I also know it's right to look to the future now. Let's stop having this argument about whether it's my character or my integrity that's at issue here and understand the decision had to be taken."

As the Tories and Liberal Democrats put the issue of trust in Mr Blair at the centre of the campaign, he accused them of raising the Iraq issue "because they have got nothing serious to say about the issues facing our country for the future". Mr Blair said of his decision to go to war: "I can't say I am sorry about it. I am not sorry about it. I think I did the right thing."

He dodged questions about the revelation that the Attorney General initially had doubts on six fronts about whether military action was legal. Asked why Lord Goldsmith appeared to have changed his mind, Mr Blair said: "It's not a question of changing his mind. The legal advice of the Attorney General was very clear ... The Attorney General came to cabinet. He was there. We had a discussion at cabinet about it." Insisting that there was no conspiracy or plot, he said: "There was a judgement, a judgement that might be right, it might be wrong, but I had to take it. I believe I made the right judgement. I believe the country is better with Saddam in prison."

He reiterated the point he made in an interview with The Independent last week that hewas not looking for an endorsement of his Iraq policy at the election. "Iraq has happened," he said. "We should look to the future. This election campaign is not just about Iraq. It's about the economy, the NHS, schools and law and order ... I don't regret the decision I took. People have to make their own minds up about it."

Mr Blair also warned that those trying to "send him a message" could open the floodgates for Tory MPs in scores of marginal constituencies.

"This election in the end isn't decided on a global set of opinion polls, it's decided in constituencies," he told The Guardian. "And if you look at those constituencies, there are a few hundred of a few thousand votes either way that detemine a lot of them.

"The Conservative campaign isn't based on a get in by the front door strategy, it's based on get in by the back door, with people thinking they're sending a message but ending up with the opposite result to what they want."

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, was also under pressure over Iraq during furious exchanges yesterday with John Humphrys, presenter of BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

When Mr Humphrys accused him of putting up "smokescreens" to avoid answering questions about Lord Goldsmith's advice, the Foreign Secretary snapped: "I have dealt with this. Keep your hair on." When the Foreign Secretary tried to refer back to UN Security Council resolution 1441, which gave Saddam Hussein a final opportunity to disarm, Mr Humphrys cut him off, saying: "No, that isn't the issue." Michael Howard, the Tory leader, said Mr Blair had "not told the truth" about Iraq. He said: "I think it was possible to go to war but to tell the truth, and Mr Blair did not tell the truth. And I also think it was extremely foolish to go to war without a plan."

Mr Howard said he thought the Iraq war was "probably" legal. But he told The Boulton Factor on Sky TV: "I would have taken it in full to the Cabinet. I would have had a full cabinet discussion on it. There is nothing more serious than taking our country to war.And if you are going to do that most serious thing, as Prime Minister the one thing, above all, you have to be is straight with the British people."

He said there was "a question of character and trust" over Mr Blair's use of the intelligence on Iraqi weapons: "Mr Blair's character is an issue in this election. There is a real question about whether the British people can trust him as well."

26 April 2005