Straw on defensive over Iraq legal advice

By Alex Stevenson

Jack Straw has denied misrepresenting Britain’s position on the legality of invading Iraq to US leaders in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.

The former foreign secretary’s comments came as he tried to explain to the Iraq inquiry why he ignored Foreign Office legal advice about the legality of the 2003 invasion.

Mr Straw was responding to claims by the FCO’s legal adviser Sir Michael Wood that Mr Straw’s public statements had clashed with his advice that an invasion without a second resolution was legal.

“The fact of the matters was as of January 24th [2003] I believed and so did. virtually everybody who negotiated [security council resolution] 1441 a second resolution would not be required if there were a continuing material breach by Iraq,” Mr Straw said.

He said he had had private discussions with members of George Bush’s administration in which he made clear that the government’s position was that resolution 1441 was sufficient justification for the war.

“I felt I was entitled to say that. That was of course subject to a decision which the attorney-general and he alone would make,” he explained.

“But,” he added to former diplomat Sir Roderic Lyne, “this was an operational discussion, in private, of the kind you will have had.”

Sir Michael had warned that United Nations security resolution 1441 was not, by itself, sufficient to justify military action. At that stage attorney-general Lord Goldsmith’s advice agreed with his.

Mr Straw told Sir John Chilcot’s panel that he chose to reject Sir Michael’s advice because it did not offer a balanced view.

“I came to this view because I was struck by the categorical nature of the advice I was being offered in the minute, and its contrast with the very balanced and detailed advice the same legal adviser had proffered to the attorney-general,” he wrote in a memorandum to the inquiry published this afternoon.

He told the panel: “Legal arguments always turn on issues where there are two or three views, that’s inevitable.

“Where I disagreed with him was that he did not have the right over and above the attorney-general to say what was and what was not unlawful.”

He added: “The legal advice he offered, frankly, was contradictory, and I think I was entitled to raise that.”

Straw: Iraq inquiry was down to me

After much of the afternoon session was taken up with discussions about the aftermath of the invasion Sir John returned to the ‘why’ question justifying the war.

In reply Mr Straw said the decision to invade had been taken only partly because of concern about the Iraqi threat.

He said the US’ involvement had been a factor, before underlining the link between the invasion and the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks.

“It followed from 9/11, the intense focus on rogue states. This was not academic – al-Qaeda had developed their extraordinary capability in Afghanistan.

“There was profound concern about the continuing destabilising effect of the Saddam regime on that region and on international peace and security.”

The justice secretary finished with an appeal to the families of those who died as a result of the decision to go to war, which in an earlier session he had claimed was down to him.

“I hope they will accept my sincerity when I say I grieve for them, albeit that I want to explain why I believe it was the appropriate decision to be made.”

At the close Sir John read out a statement in which he insisted that the Iraq inquiry did not believe any material was being withheld by the government.

“The inquiry has broken new ground and a great deal has been achieved,” he said, before the public audience burst into unprecedented applause as the session ended.