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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 March, 2005, 13:00 GMT
Iraq war haunts UK prime minister
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

British prime minister Tony Blair has long known that the controversy surrounding the war on Iraq and his unbending support for the US-led campaign was not about to go away.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair hit by fresh war allegations
Each time he suggests the time has come to draw a line under the rows and divisions it caused, both domestically and internationally, something new emerges to push the entire issue back onto the front pages.

His best hope is that any political damage has already been done and that, with a British general election probably only six weeks away, most voters have now made up their minds on the issue - one way or another.

But his position will not have been helped by a trio of new, war-related developments.

First, his Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has finally published the government's response to an independent inquiry carried out into the intelligence provided in the run up to the war.

And he announced new safeguards to prevent a repeat of the intelligence failings and to tighten the procedures ministers use to handle such information.

Military action

Secondly, the influential defence committee of British MPs has re-opened the argument over the US-UK coalition's allegedly inadequate planning for the post-war phase in Iraq.

The MPs highlighted the coalition's failure to grasp the likely scale of the insurgency or the sense of local resentment at perceived "cultural and economic imperialism" that may follow the occupation.

Royal Marines in southern Iraq
Coalition was unprepared for post-conflict situation
Finally - and potentially the most dangerous for Tony Blair - there has been fresh evidence that UK Attorney General Lord Goldsmith may have changed his mind and declared the war legal at the last moment only, it is claimed, after it became clear the coalition would not win a second UN resolution to support military action.

That has brought renewed demands from opposition parties and critical Labour MPs for the government to publish Lord Goldsmith's original legal opinion said to cast doubt over the legality of war, and for an explanation of why he changed his mind.

Lord Goldsmith has long insisted that the final advice he gave just before the conflict was his independent and genuinely held view that military action would be legal.

And the foreign secretary, speaking in an emergency debate in the Commons, again insisted the government had no intention of breaking precedent and publishing his advice.

And he repeated the established line that the independent advice from the attorney general was the war was legal.

But the pressure just keeps on building, with the latest revelation coming in a previously censored resignation letter from a foreign office lawyer who quit her job in the belief the war was illegal.

Serious allegation

That has now led to claims of a government cover up, with former British ministers Clare Short and Robin Cook - who both also resigned over the war - stepping up their attacks on the government.

However, there remains a significant problem for those demanding explanations about the attorney general's perceived change of opinion.

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith
Lord Goldsmith accused of changing advice
The implication is that he was persuaded by the prime minister or those around him to alter his advice when it became clear there would be no UN sanction for war.

That is about as serious an allegation as can be made and, if ever proven, would be devastating for the prime minister.

But without some further clear, unambiguous evidence that was the case, the critics' argument still relies on either circumstantial evidence or speculation over motives.

The British government shows absolutely no sign of being ready to offer any further details on this issue, and divining precisely what was in the attorney general's mind presents a serious challenge.

And it must remain Tony Blair's hope that the looming election campaign will focus on other domestic issues and that the Iraq controversy will be a secondary affair.

None the less, this has still been by far the greatest crisis to buffet the government and the prime minister in particular and it will cast a long shadow over that campaign.

And, of course, the opposition parties and some Labour MPs are not about to stop gnawing away at this bone.

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