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Blair faces concerted Iraq attack


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Iraq war puts the trust in Blair to the test as election approaches. CNN's Robin Oakley reports
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Robin Oakley
UK election

LONDON, England -- Iraq dominated Britain's election debate at the start of the last full week of campaigning as Prime Minister Tony Blair was forced to defend himself against new attacks that he misled the country in the runup to the war.

Blair on Monday faced intense questioning from reporters about a newspaper report that the government's chief legal officer had serious doubts the war might be illegal before it began in March 2003.

Michael Howard, the leader of the main opposition Conservative Party, said Blair "did not tell the truth" about Britain's reasons for supporting the U.S.-led military campaign.

The smaller opposition Liberal Democrats also demanded a full public inquiry into events leading up to the war.

"Britain's international reputation has been damaged by the way Tony Blair took us to war," Reuters quoted Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy as saying.

"Tony Blair says history will be his judge. He is wrong. The British people will be his judge."

Blair defended himself vigorously on an issue that has dogged him for more than two years at Monday's news conference, just 10 days before the May 5 poll.

He and opponents of the Iraq war would "never resolve" their differences, Blair said, but insisted many of the issues were irrelevant now.

Facing repeated questions about a report in the Mail on Sunday, Blair insisted Attorney-General Lord Peter Goldsmith had never had doubts about the war's legality nor changed his mind.

"The legal advice of the attorney general was very clear," he said.

Before the invasion, Blair tried to persuade the British public to support the invasion because of the threat of weapons of mass destruction held by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

None were found in Iraq though, leading to claims -- hotly denied by the prime minister -- that he misled the public. The issue has eroded trust in Blair, whose sky-high popularity ratings helped Labour storm to victory in 1997 and again in 2001.

Conservative leader Michael Howard said Monday that although his party supported the war, it did not back Blair's reasons for waging it.

"I think it was possible to go to war but to tell the truth, and Mr. Blair did not tell the truth," Howard said.

Blair -- whose center-left Labour Party looks likely to win a historic third election victory with ease, according to opinion polls -- dismissed Howard's comments, along with the Liberal Democrat demand for an inquiry.

"You have got to ask yourself why this is happening today -- why it is that the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have gone back to this issue?" Blair asked.

"I would suggest to you it's because they have got nothing serious to say about the issues facing the country for the future.

"Let's stop having this argument about whether it's my character or my integrity that's at issue here and understand the decision had to be taken."


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