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Blair fights 'war legality' charge

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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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LONDON, England (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has hit back at accusations he lied about the legal case for war in Iraq after opposition parties said a leaked document revealed ministers tried to cover up doubts.

The memo containing advice from Attorney General Lord Goldsmith again propelled the debate about the U.S.-led invasion and Blair's integrity back to the center of the election campaign a week before Britons vote.

Blair has insisted that Goldsmith, the government's top legal adviser, was unequivocal in his advice on March 17, 2003, that the military campaign to topple Saddam Hussein would be legal.

But in a confidential memo Goldsmith wrote to Blair 10 days earlier -- initially leaked to a TV news program and published by Downing Street in full Thursday -- he warned of doubts about the war's legality without a second U.N. Security Council resolution specifically authorizing military action.

Ten days later in a parliamentary statement, Goldsmith said war would be legal without the further resolution.

The decision to publish the legal advice represents an about-face for Blair, who until now has steadfastly refused to make it public.

Blair on Thursday dismissed the latest evidence suggesting that Goldsmith changed his mind as "a damp squib" instead of a "smoking gun."

As the issue dominated election campaigning, Blair told reporters at a news conference supposed to spotlight his party's business pledges: "The key thing was the attorney general's advice that it was lawful to proceed."

Opposition leaders have stepped up their attacks on the issue by focusing on Blair's integrity. "The issue of Iraq now boils down to one simple question at the root of it all," said Conservative party leader Michael Howard, who now describes the prime minister as a liar.

"If you can't trust Mr. Blair on the decision to take the country to war, the most important decision a prime minister can take, how can you trust Mr. Blair on anything else ever again?"

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy accused Blair today of justifying his decision to go to war with Iraq in "a misleading fashion."

Kennedy demanded the prime minister "comes clean with the British public" over the advice given to him by the attorney general on the legality of the war.

He said the initial legal advice from Goldsmith to Blair would "further undermine the prime minister's reputation."

Kennedy repeatedly refused to call Blair a liar as he demanded a full statement from him on the apparent changes in Goldsmith's opinion.

He also attacked as "utterly pathetic" the position of the Conservatives, who he said had been "principal cheerleaders" for war when the Lib Dems had been asking the critical questions.

'Personal abuse'

The report said "a court might well conclude" U.N. Security Council resolutions at the time did not authorize war, Reuters news agency reported.

"I remain of the opinion that the safest legal course would be to secure the adoption of a further resolution to authorize the use of force," Goldsmith wrote.

While Blair has been trying to campaign on a booming economy, he has not been able to shrug off his controversial decision to go to war in Iraq.

The Conservative Party leader said he still believed it was right to overthrow Saddam, but accused the prime minister of misrepresenting intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Howard's attack came after his party unveiled a campaign poster ahead of the national election on May 5 accusing the prime minister of lying.

"If he's prepared to lie to take us to war, he's prepared to lie to win an election," says the billboard, which shows a picture of Blair.

The Conservatives, also known as the Tories, are trailing in most opinion polls but one published on Wednesday indicated that apathy could undermine Blair's hopes for an historic third term.

The MORI survey for the Financial Times showed Blair's Labour Party 10 points ahead among the whole sample, but just two points ahead of the Conservatives among those who said they were "absolutely certain" to vote. The poll had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

Blair brushed off Howard's accusations, pledging to use the remainder of the election campaign to talk about values and policy, rather than respond to "personal abuse."

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