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Blair, Howard play down Iraq issue

Mother of dead soldier threatens legal action


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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Conservative opponent Michael Howard tried to move the UK election battleground back onto the domestic agenda Friday after a week of wrangling over Iraq.

Blair campaigned with Chancellor Gordon Brown trying to convince voters that only they could be trusted to run the economy. Howard said people now wanted to focus on the "wider issues" in the campaign.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy -- who is seen as gaining ground from his party's opposition to the Iraq war -- meanwhile highlighted his party's pensions policy.

On Thursday Iraq again took center stage when Blair agreed to publish the attorney general's advice on the legality of the Iraq war after excerpts were leaked to journalists. (Full story)

The attorney general's letter dominated the first-ever live TV quizzing of all three leaders on BBC1's Question Time Thursday night -- the three men appeared separately, not face-to-face as in U.S. presidential debates.

Blair delivered a robust televised defense of his decision to go to war with Iraq, rebuffing criticism raised by the release of the secret memo which opponents said showed he had deceived Britain.

Blair strongly denied the charge.

"For the past few days it's been said that the attorney general advised that it was illegal to go to war," Blair told the audience.

"He didn't. He advised it was lawful."

Blair hoped that by publishing the attorney general's advice in full he had taken the steam out of the rows over Iraq and can now get the debate back on to the economy and health and education.

But the row over Iraq continued Friday as the mother of a soldier killed in the conflict announced she would take legal action against the Blair government.

Rose Gentle, who is contesting the East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow seat against Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram, told the UK's Press Association: "My son was sent to die in a war that the attorney general viewed as illegal without a second United Nations resolution.

"Tony Blair and the Labour Government sent Gordon and 86 other British troops to die in Iraq when he knew that it was an illegal war.

"I will now be taking legal action against the British government for the death of my son in an illegal war."

Alongside Chancellor Gordon Brown, Blair used a speech in Wales to claim that Labour is "the only serious party on the ballot paper" for the May 5 election.

Conservative leader Howard was also visiting Wales Friday, using an early morning press conference in Cardiff to maintain his attack on Blair's trustworthiness.

In the TV grilling, Howard said he would have gone to war in Iraq even if he had known Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, but accused Blair of failing to tell the truth on the war and failing to plan for its aftermath.

'Not straight'

Howard told Friday's news conference: "We are in the last few days now of campaigning in this general election and it's time to focus on the wider choices people face on this campaign.

"We have had a week of Labour spin justifying the past, watching their backs, not being straight about their plans for the future."

He added: "The British people want to move on from the debate of the last few days. Character is an important issue for them, but now they want to hear about something better. And that's our approach too."

Blair said: "Today we return to the big and fundamental choice facing the country -- forward or back. The Labour Government with a strong economy, economic stability, or back with a Tory government that will put that economic stability at risk.

"It's only if people come out and support us that that strong economy with investment in health and education and law and order continues.

"There's a fundamental choice. On May 6 people will either wake up with a Conservative government with Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin or with a Labour government with me and Gordon."

When asked if he was feeling under pressure, Blair replied: "No, but I do think it's important that people understand how big and fundamental the choice is."

Queensland strategy

Blair also turned his fire on the Liberal Democrats at an event in England, warning that experience from Britain in 1970, France's last presidential election and the Australian state of Queensland in 1995 has shown that third parties can split the "progressive" vote and bring about the victory of conservative forces.

A senior Labour aide said: "Labour believes that after the latest media frenzy on Iraq, the public wants the debate back on the fundamental choices facing Britain.

"So from now to May 5, we will be campaigning on the economy and public services, stepping up the time spent on the road, stepping up the attacks, continuing to expose the nature of the Tory Queensland strategy, and the reality of the debate in marginal constituencies."

Blair had Thursday 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."

  • A new poll Friday revealed that most people believed Lib Dem leader Kennedy was more trustworthy than Blair or Howard. A YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph found that only 22 percent thought Kennedy was "telling lies" to win the election, while 46 percent said he was not. The survey showed that 58 percent agreed with Conservative claims that the Prime Minister was lying during the election campaign. However, the Tory leader was also viewed as untruthful by the majority of those polled as 51 percent did not believe he was being honest.

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