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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 May, 2005, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Iraq could dominate final days of campaign
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

So much for the big three political leaders' plans to move on from Iraq and Tony Blair's character.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair is under fire over a leaked memo

Thanks to fresh newspaper allegations and a series of interviews and campaign rallies, the war and the prime minister's integrity have been driven back to the top of the agenda.

For the second weekend running, Mr Blair has found himself presented with leaked information giving new impetus to the row over the way he took Britain to war.

Last weekend it was the attorney general's controversial advice over the legality of the conflict.

Now it is a leaked memo seen by some as confirmation the prime minister had agreed to back US military action to remove Saddam eight months before the war started.

'Military action'

The document details a top secret meeting in July 2002 between the prime minister, senior ministers and advisors and defence and intelligence chiefs.

For the second week running, the prime minister has found himself having to address the Iraq issue rather than the core issues of public services

It talks about US plans for regime change - deemed illegal by the attorney general - and the inevitability of US military action which the UK would back.

It also shows the prime minister claiming it would make a difference "politically and legally" if Saddam was to refuse to allow weapons inspectors back into Iraq.

The document shows the meeting concluded by stating, amongst other things: "We should work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action".

The opposition parties have seized on the leak to suggest it showed the prime minister had already agreed action with President Bush and that regime change was the ultimate aim.

'Smoking gun'

Liberal Democrat spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell has claimed it also shows the government was attempting to work up an excuse for that action.

But the prime minister has denied that, insisting the discussion was simply looking at one of the options as they were seen at that time.

And the document can be read as details of a "what if" rather than a "we will" meeting.

However, at that time in 2002 the prime minister was insisting no decision on military action had been made.

Once again, as with the attorney general's advice, this is far from a "smoking gun" and can be open to several interpretations.

Core issues

That will do little to stop the row continuing into the final few days of the election campaign, however.

For the second week running, the prime minister has found himself having to address the Iraq issue rather than the core issues of public services and the economy which he has been struggling to put back at the centre of his campaign.

Meanwhile, Michael Howard has repeated his claims the prime minister deceived the cabinet and Commons over the war.

And, in a distinct hardening of tone, Charles Kennedy has talked of Mr Blair's "failed" premiership and said Iraq will dog him for the rest of the campaign.

Mr Blair has hit back by claiming the opposition parties' concentration on the war simply prove they have nothing else to offer.

And the good news for Labour is that none of the attacks appear to have had any serious impact on the polls which still show Mr Blair cruising towards that longed-for third victory.

Labour strategists, however, remain deeply concerned about the marginal constituencies, which they believe will decide the outcome of the poll.

And it is still difficult to predict just how the Iraq war and the prime minister's character is playing in those seats.

There will be an intensification of the campaign to target just those seats in the remaining four days of this election battle.



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