Page last updated at 23:11 GMT, Monday, 8 February 2010

Iraq Inquiry: Straw denies cabinet war debate blocked

Jack Straw: "I believed a second resolution would not be required"

Jack Straw has said cabinet ministers were not prevented from discussing the legality of invading Iraq.

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith gave brief written advice that the war was legal when cabinet met on 17 March 2003, three days before the invasion.

Ex-minister Clare Short has said she was "jeered at" when she questioned it.

Mr Straw, the former foreign secretary, said that was not his recollection and ministers were not "wilting violets" and could have asked questions.

In his second appearance at the Iraq inquiry, Mr Straw faced a series of questions about the legal advice he was given on whether UN Security Council resolution 1441 gave sufficient authorisation for war.

'Finely balanced'

Until a month before the 2003 invasion, the attorney general - the government's chief legal adviser - had believed it was "safer" to get a fresh UN resolution.

But he gave the "green light" after deciding force was justified by UN accords on Iraq dating back to 1991. He circulated a statement at cabinet on 17 March 2003.

Clare Short arrives at the Iraq Inquiry
Ms Short quit as international development secretary in the aftermath of the war

The inquiry has released a declassified Foreign Office note which said Lord Goldsmith felt he might need to tell ministers the arguments were "finely balanced".

But Mr Straw advised him to be aware of "the problem of leaks from that cabinet" and suggested he instead distributed a "basic standard text" of his position and then "made a few comments".

Mr Straw confirmed he had been concerned about leaks. But he rejected suggestions that cabinet ministers were not fully aware of the finely balanced arguments

'Wilting violets'

He said: "The cabinet were fully aware that the arguments were evenly balanced. It was impossible to open a newspaper without being fully aware of the balance of the arguments.

"No-one was unaware of the fact that there had been and was continuing an intense legal debate about the interpretation of 1441."

No cabinet ministers were "wilting violets" he said and any could have asked Lord Goldsmith questions about his advice.

Far from ignoring this advice, as has been suggested publicly, I read Sir Michael's minute with great care
Jack Straw

But they came to the view that they did not need to know the "process", just the decision he had reached.

On former International Development Secretary Ms Short's suggestion she was "jeered" at when she tried to question Lord Goldsmith's advice, Mr Straw said: "That was not my recollection. This was a very serious cabinet meeting."

The justice secretary also rejected claims he ignored legal advice that an invasion would be unlawful.

Sir Michael Wood - who was Mr Straw's senior legal adviser at the time - had advised him it would amount to a "crime of aggression".

But Mr Straw said: "Far from ignoring this advice, as has been suggested publicly, I read Sir Michael's minute with great care and gave it the serious attention it deserved."

Second resolution

But he said it would be a "fundamentally flawed" system if ministers had to accept all legal advice offered "if there were reasonable grounds for taking a contrary view".

Mr Straw said he had had "intense knowledge of the negotiating history" of the UN Security Resolution 1441 - which the UK and US argued gave them the right to invade.

Peter Biles
Peter Biles, BBC World Affairs correspondent

The members of the Iraq Inquiry needed a full afternoon to question Jack Straw further, after his evidence session in January.

In spite of the often halting delivery that is characteristic of the former foreign secretary, Mr Straw confidently gave his version of events, following the testimony given by the former Foreign Office legal advisers, and Clare Short.

Later, there was a tantalising glimpse into the murky world of hostage-taking. Mr Straw said the kidnapping of people such as Ken Bigley and Margaret Hassan had always been "a personal priority" for him.

It was soon clear however, that this was an area of discussion that was not going to go far in open session.

The inquiry says it has unrestricted access to tens of thousands of government documents, many of them highly classified.

Publishing them is clearly still a problem. Only a small number have been declassified by the Cabinet Office in the last few weeks.

He believed it "required a second stage but not a second resolution" and said it was clear to everyone involved in the negotiations that the resolution was "self standing".

Asked why the government had continued to push for a second resolution up to the invasion, Mr Straw said if one had been gained he believed Saddam's regime would have collapsed "like a pack of cards" - without the need for military action.

He was also asked about claims that ministers were told to "blame the French" after the failure to get a second resolution.

Inquiry member Sir Roderic Lyne asked if that was fair, when the UK and US never had the requisite nine votes on the Security Council - they only had four - the UK, US, Spain and Bulgaria.

Mr Straw said he was confident they could have got them, but when then French President Jacques Chirac had told journalists he would veto the move, it had effectively "pulled the rug out" from negotiations.

He also said remarks by US "neocons" - including Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz - had made negotiations difficult.

"If a way had been found of inviting the neocons in the US to take a long holiday without a telephone, negotiations would have been easier," he added.

In a closing statement at the end of the session, inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot said the public hearings were only "one element of our inquiry".

The "central core" of its work was "in tens of thousands of government documents", many of them "highly classified" and the panel's access was "unrestricted", he said.

Former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix has told the BBC's Hardtalk programme that he was "puzzled" by Mr Straw's earlier evidence to the inquiry.

Mr Straw had told the panel that a report drawn up by Mr Blix on the eve of the war had "made an indelible impression" on him and that it "convinced me that Iraq's non-compliance with Security Council requirements going back to 1991 was profound".

But Mr Blix said he found such a reaction "amazing" as "there was nothing sensationally new in that document".

The full Hans Blix interview on Hardtalk can be seen on the BBC News Channel at 2330 GMT and on BBC World at 0430, 0930, 1530 and 2130 GMT on 8 February 2010.

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