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Attorney General 'distanced himself from war advice'

By Chris Bunting

14 February 2005

The Government's most senior law officer distanced himself from the decision to invade Iraq by asking for an 11th-hour personal assurance from Tony Blair that Saddam Hussein was flouting the ban on developing weapons of mass destruction.

Letters released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that, just three days before delivering his legal backing for the war in Iraq and five days before the invasion began, Attorney General Lord Goldsmith QC wrote to No 10 saying the legal case rested on a personal judgement call by the Prime Minister.

Lord Goldsmith stressed that it was "essential" to the Government's legal justification for war that there be "strong evidence" of continuing breaches by Iraq of security council resolutions.

"The Attorney General understands that it is unequivocally the Prime Minister's view that Iraq has committed further material breaches as specified in paragraph 4 of resolution 1441, but as this is a judgment for the Prime Minister, the Attorney would be grateful for confirmation that this is the case," Lord Goldsmith wrote in a letter to the Prime Minister, dated 14 March 2003.

Only after receiving a written reassurance from No 10 that it is "indeed the Prime Minister's unequivocal view that Iraq is in further material breach of its obligations" did the Attorney General deliver his legal backing for the war to Parliament on 17 March.

The release of the letters is the closest the Government has come to revealing the Attorney General's advice to the Prime Minister before the war and appears to show nervousness on the part of the Government's chief legal officer at being made to carry the legal responsibility for an invasion.

A request from The Independent, under the Freedom of Information Act, for Lord Goldsmith's legal advice was rejected last month. The Government argued that frank legal advice required secrecy. However, the Butler inquiry into the handling of the build-up to war included a brief reference to the correspondence between Lord Goldsmith and No 10 and this appears to have justified the release of the letters.

Lord Goldsmith was under pressure from No 10 in March 2003 to justify military action without the further Security Council resolution that countries such as France insisted was necessary. The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, has since said that the invasion was illegal.