Britain's inquiry into the Iraq war

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The UK government's former top lawyer has said he initially believed a second UN resolution was necessary to justify invading Iraq in 2003, but changed his mind a month before the war. Critics of the war have long suspected that former Attorney General Peter Goldsmith was pressured to change his mind by then Prime Minister Tony Blair (pictured). Blair is expected to testify before the inquiry on Friday. Laura Lynch reports.

MARCO WERMAN: Britain's investigation into it's involvement in the war in Iraq is heating up. In two days former British Prime Minister Tony Blair faces a public grilling at the Iraq inquiry. And today, there was new evidence suggesting Washington played a key role in convincing Blair's government that the Iraq invasion was legal. The World's Laura Lynch reports.

LAURA LYNCH: It's the question that goes to the heart of the inquiry; was the 2003 invasion of Iraq illegal? A Dutch inquiry concluded two weeks that it was. But it's still a matter of intense debate here in Britain. Yesterday the Foreign Office's two top lawyers at the time of the invasion were unequivocal in their testimony. They said the invasion wasn't legal without explicit UN support. Elizabeth Wilmshurst told the inquiry her Minister, Jack Straw, simply swept aside that advice.

ELIZABETH WILMHURST: Well, it's rather uncomfortable when the Secretary of State of the Department doesn't agree with the legal advice given to him or her. So in that sense it was a challenge.

MALE VOICE 1: Was it unusual in your experience?

ELIZABETH WILMHURST: Yes.

MALE VOICE 2: Did it make a difference that Jack Straw is himself a qualified lawyer?

ELIZABETH WILMHURST: He is not an international lawyer.

LAURA LYNCH: The uncomfortable laughter was a nod to the tensions simmering throughout government in the months before the war. Tensions that lead to sharp disagreements among ministers. Today Tony Blair's Attorney General took his turn on the stand. Lord Peter Goldsmith said he, too, got a cool reception when he tried to warn Blair the summer before the invasion not to rush into anything with George W. Bush.

LORD PETER GOLDSMITH: I knew that the Prime Minister was going to see President Bush. I knew that one of the topics of conversation, at least, was going to be the Iraq issue because that was obviously very much on the international agenda at that stage. And I didn't want there to be any doubt that in my view the Prime Minister could not have the view that he could agree with President Bush somehow, well let's go without going back to the United Nations. I wasn't asked for it. I don't, frankly, think it was terribly welcome.

LAURA LYNCH: Goldsmith didn't waiver in his view until February of 2003, just weeks before the troops rolled into Iraq. For the first time today, Goldsmith admitted it was a trip to the United States that changed his mind. He visited the White House, met with attorneys and Condoleeza Rice among others. Goldsmith came back and gave Blair the go ahead.

LORD PETER GOLDSMITH: I was of the view that a reasonable case could be made. I'm sorry, there was a reasonable case that a second resolution was not necessary and that that was on past precedence, sufficient to constitute a green light.

LAURA LYNCH: Watching all this today was Clare Short. She was in Blair's cabinet at the time, but resigned over the decision to invade. She finds Goldsmith's conversion on the road back from the White House troubling.

CLARE SHORT: And to say he was influenced by the Americans, we know that the Bush administration had no respect of any kind for the UN or for international law, didn't think there was any need to go to the Security Council, did so because Britain couldn't do it without that. So to say that American opinion influenced him is really not impressive.

LAURA LYNCH: Short herself will testify at the inquiry in the coming weeks, but not before the former Prime Minister himself on Friday. Tony Blair's appearance is almost certain to generate protest outside and inside the hearing room. Relatives of soldiers who died in Iraq will be sitting just feet away from Blair as he testifies. For many of them, Blair was far too ready to follow Washington's lead into a war they still believe wasn't justified. For The World, I'm Laura Lynch in London.