Iraq still gnaws at Blair's credibility

Key points

• More Iraq problems for the PM

• Leaked documents reveal decision to go to war taken a year before events took place

• Also, Foreign Office was convinced war was illegal without UN authorisation

Key quote

"Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even though the timing was not yet decided. we work up a plan for an ultimatum to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors." - Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary

Story in full

TONY Blair was unable to shake the spectre of Iraq yesterday as the flow of leaked documents continued - the latest showing he decided to go to war a year before telling the public.

A 10 Downing Street memo written in June 2002 showed the Prime Minister saying he would "work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action". At the time, Mr Blair and his spokesmen vehemently denied such a decision had been taken.

The Conservatives said the leaks will ensure trust is the key issue on polling day, while the Liberal Democrats said the nation’s verdict on the Iraq war will be delivered on Thursday.

Four days after the secret legal advice of the Iraq war was leaked to Channel Four News, two Sunday newspapers yesterday had separate documents: a Foreign Office memo and the minutes of a 10 Downing Street meeting.

The full text of the minutes of the meeting chaired by the Prime Minister and attended by his inner circle were printed by one of the papers yesterday.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, admitted to the meeting that the "case was thin" for invading Iraq as "Saddam was not threatening his neighbours" and "his WMD capacity was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

But Mr Straw conceded that "Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even though the timing was not yet decided". So he suggested that "we work up a plan for an ultimatum to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors."

Meanwhile, further revelations yesterday centred on the fact that the Foreign Office remained convinced the war was illegal without explicit United Nations authorisation - and even then, regime change was out of the question.

A Foreign Office document showed that, three months earlier, ministers were advised that only the UN Security Council could declare Saddam in breach of UN resolutions.

It shows that Mr Blair knew a year before the conflict that he could not admit to the public that his aim was regime change - as this would technically defy the UN Charter.

Mr Blair has for the last few months happily admitted his aim was regime change - referring to the war as a "decision to remove Saddam".

Last week, he explained: "I took the view then - I take it now - that it was better for this country’s security, and the security of the world, to remove Saddam and put him in prison rather than have him in power."

However, he changed back to his original position when questioned about the matter on BBC1’s Breakfast With Frost yesterday.

"If the UN resolution had been adhered to by Saddam, that would have been the end of it, despite the fact it was the most appalling regime," he said.

Lord Boyce, head of the British military during the Iraq war, has explained that he asked for legal assurances on the war simply to make sure that, if UK troops were ever prosecuted, the Prime Minister would go down with them.

"I wanted to make sure that we had this anchor which has been signed by the government law officer," said Lord Boyce.

"It may not stop us from being charged but, by God, it would make sure other people were brought into the frame as well," he added in a newspaper interview.

Asked if he meant Mr Blair and Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General, he replied: "Too bloody right."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the deputy Lib Dem leader, said the stream of leaked memos had painted a clear picture of a government that decided to go to war - but needed to build an excuse to get around the UN law.

"It’s now clear that they agreed to illegal regime change with the Bush administration and deliberately set out to manufacture circumstances which would allow them to claim a justification to go to war," he said.

International law in this case is defined as the terms of the 1945 UN Charter which forbids any country from deposing the leader of another.

However, there is little penalty for breaking the terms of the charter - as Ronald Reagan demonstrated in 1986 when he ignored a UN fine imposed on the United States for training Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

The International Criminal Court has powers to prosecute only "genuine" war criminals - like those in the former Republic of Yugoslavia.

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