Law chief 'put on spot over invasion'

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith was told by Tony Blair he had to give a "definitive" decision one way or the other on whether the invasion of Iraq was legal, the official inquiry into the war heard yesterday.

Jonathan Powell, the No 10 chief of staff and one of Mr Blair's closest aides, denied an attempt was made to "bully" Lord Goldsmith into authorising the war.

But he told the inquiry it was made clear that Lord Goldsmith could not simply sit on the fence with a legal opinion which said "on the one hand, on the other".

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Lord Goldsmith was first asked for his advice on the legality of military action in July 2002 when he told the Cabinet there was no basis for intervention.

But on March 7, 2003, two weeks before the invasion, he gave Mr Blair a lengthy opinion in which he argued a "reasonable case" could be made that UN Security Council resolution 1441 on Iraq had revived the earlier authorisation for military action dating back to the 1991 Gulf War.

However, he also said it would be preferable to obtain a second resolution explicitly authorising military intervention.

Four days later, with the diplomatic efforts in the UN on the verge of collapse, Lord Goldsmith was called for a meeting with Mr Blair. "I don't know if he was asked for a definitive opinion before March 11. He was certainly asked for a definitive view on March 11," Mr Powell said.

On March 17 the attorney general issued a second, single-page opinion authorising military intervention.

Inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot said that at that point Lord Goldsmith could have stopped "the whole things in its tracks" – something the Government would not have wanted to happen. Mr Powell replied: "You are not able to bully the attorney general but he was bearing a very heavy burden."

Mr Powell also disclosed that Mr Blair wrote to US President George Bush 11 months before the invasion warning him of the need to "move quickly" if it came to military action.

But he strongly denied the suggestion by the former ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer that Mr Blair had given an "undertaking signed in blood" when he met Mr Bush in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002.