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Blair OK's release of memo on legal case for Iraq war

Aiming to quiet prevote criticism

LONDON -- Trying to extinguish a controversy in the home stretch of his campaign for re-election, Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday made public the secret legal advice he received less than two weeks before ordering British troops into Iraq.

For more than a year, reports had circulated that Blair went to war in March 2003 even though he knew an invasion would be questionable under international law. But the March 7, 2003, document released yesterday showed that Lord Peter Goldsmith, Britain's attorney general, had concluded that there was a ''reasonable case" an invasion would be legal due to Iraq's failure to comply with UN resolutions.

Opponents of Blair, meanwhile, seized on other portions of the March 7 legal analysis in which Goldsmith suggested that some might disagree with his conclusion. When Goldsmith delivered a public statement to parliament on March 17 that the war would be legal, he omitted such qualms.

The controversy has boiled up just one week before British voters go to the polls. Blair, prime minister since 1997, is attempting to win what would be an unprecedented third term for a Labor leader, and most polls show him firmly in the lead. With time running out, both of his main opponents have raised anew Blair's unpopular decision to join the invasion of Iraq more than two years ago.

Even Michael Howard's Conservative Party, which supported the war, has taken to arguing that Blair went about building the case for the war dishonestly.

Blair had ''said that the attorney general's advice that was given was clear," Conservative deputy leader Michael Ancram charged yesterday. ''We now know from the publication of today's document that it was anything but clear."

At a heated morning news conference, called to unveil the Labor Party's program for business growth, Blair maintained that the record being made public supported his previous statements.

The opposition's long-sought ''smoking gun," Blair said, had turned out to be nothing but ''a damp squib."

Blair said some opponents were being opportunistic in trying to frame the debate as a matter of character and integrity, when the real issue was their disagreement with Blair on whether he should have committed Britain to invade Iraq alongside the United States.

He said he respected critics of the war but still believed he had made the right choice. ''It was a decision that this leader had to take," he insisted.

According to the March 7, 2003, document, Goldsmith said that obtaining a second UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein would be ''the safest legal course," but was not an essential legal condition for going to war.

''I accept that a reasonable case can be made . . . without a further resolution," Goldsmith said.

Blair said repeatedly at his news conference yesterday that it was clear on March 17, 2003, that no such resolution would make it through the Security Council because France said it would veto it.

Supporting Blair at the news conference were two Cabinet members who denied charges that the body had been kept in the dark about Goldsmith's initial reservations.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, often seen as a political rival within the Labor Party to Blair, was unequivocal in his support yesterday. He said that Goldsmith was at the relevant Cabinet sessions when the decision to go to war was agreed on, and the Cabinet had a full chance to question him.

He also said he fully supported Blair's actions at the time.

After the release of the document, Howard, who in recent days had labeled Blair a ''liar," tempered his comments but defended his decision to inject the issue of Blair's integrity into the campaign.

''If people don't trust Mr. Blair, how can they trust him to keep the promises he is making in this general election?" Howard asked.

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