UK government lawyer said Iraq war was illegal

8:47am EST

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – One of Britain’s top legal advisers during the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq said on Tuesday he believed the military action was illegal.

Michael Wood, the most senior legal adviser at Britain’s Foreign Office until 2006, told an inquiry examining Britain’s role in the war a United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force had been required to make the military action lawful.

“I considered that the use of force against Iraq in March 2003 was contrary to international law,” Wood said in a written statement to the inquiry.

“In my opinion, that use of force had not been authorized by the Security Council, and had no other legal basis in war.”

In the weeks running up to the March 2003 invasion, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. officials tried to persuade the other members of the U.N. Security Council to agree to a resolution authorizing the use of force.

However, after negotiations failed, the British government’s top lawyer, Attorney General Peter Goldsmith, told parliament three days before the invasion that a combination of previous U.N. resolutions made the action lawful.

Wood told the inquiry Tuesday that he had consistently advised that regime change was not a legal basis for war, and action required a specific U.N. mandate, which was absent in the resolution 1441 passed in 2002.

“I made it clear that, in my view, the draft that they were working toward did not authorize the use of force without a further decision of the Security Council,” he said, telling the inquiry he disagreed with Goldsmith’s view.

Other declassified documents showed he had also made it clear to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in January 2003 that there was no legal basis for military action.

Goldsmith, who some commentators argue changed his advice after coming under pressure from Blair, is due to give evidence Wednesday.

BLAIR TO APPEAR

Blair himself will make his eagerly awaited appearance on Friday, and Wood’s evidence along with the now public documents will add to the pressure for him to explain why he sent 45,000 British troops to war in Iraq.

The conflict, which provoked huge protests, still remains a millstone around the ruling Labor Party’s neck and continues to haunt Blair’s successor Gordon Brown, who was finance minister during the war.

Many Labor members of parliament and supporters remain angry over the government’s decision to support U.S. President George W. Bush in a war and occupation during which 179 British soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis caught up in insurgency were killed.

Brown set up the inquiry last year to learn lessons from the conflict, but some Labor figures fear it will be divisive and damage their electoral chances ahead of an election due by June, with their party already trailing in the polls.

Brown will appear before the election and could face difficult questions about his role in the war.

“I think the mistake in the war was not to do the reconstruction and plan it in the way that was necessary so that Iraq could recover quickly after Saddam Hussein fell,” Brown told reporters Monday when the issue was again raised.

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