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Fierce debater who quit over Iraq

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Cook's resignation speech in protest against the Iraq war brought applause from fellow lawmakers.

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Robin Cook
Great Britain
Tony Blair
Obituaries (General)

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary for the first four years of Tony Blair's Labour government in Britain and the man who damagingly resigned on the eve of the war in Iraq, died of a heart attack while hill-walking in Scotland at the start of Britain's parliamentary holidays. He was 59.

CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley says that Iraq loomed large in the parliamentary career of a man who died awaiting what many saw as a return call to front-line politics.

Sometimes described by colleagues in his ministerial days as the cleverest man in the Cabinet, Cook had remained in the House of Commons after resigning as Leader of the House of Commons.

Colleagues say he had hopes of figuring in a future Labour administration once Prime Minister Tony Blair had quit -- as Blair has promised to do before the next British election.

During his years as Foreign Secretary, Cook was friendly with then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

He also worked hard at establishing good relations with fellow foreign ministers in Europe from 1997 to 2001. But after being moved to a different Cabinet post he fell out with the Prime Minister over Iraq.

It was then he won plaudits for one of the most effective resignation speeches in British parliamentary history.

He told a hushed House of Commons in March 2003: "The reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the leading international bodies in which we are a leading power. Not NATO. Not the EU. And now not the Security Council."

He also made this prescient prediction: "Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood use of the term."

Lawmakers on the government backbenches broke all the British parliamentary rules by applauding his speech.

After that he became a regular contributor to British media as well as continuing to voice his criticisms in the House of Commons.

Like this intervention in October, 2003: "Parliament was asked to vote for war on an assurance that weapons of mass destruction existed.

"Parliament might well not have voted for the war if it had been told what we know today -- that those weapons did not exist."

Cook was known as one of the most forensic debaters in the British parliament. Ironically it was Iraq which had earlier given him his greatest success.

He flayed the then Conservative government in 1996 on the publication of the report of the Scott Inquiry into whether John Major's ministers had turned a blind eye to sanctions busting with Saddam Hussein's regime. He had had just two hours to study a massive five volume report but turned in a memorable performance.

But although Cook was praised as an analytical thinker and was a leading left winger in his party few believed he could ever have been its leader.

Something of a loner, he didn't have either the physical stature or the clubbability to carry him all the way.

Tony Blair may have lost one of his most effective and persistent critics over the Iraq, but he like many in the Labour Party and beyond will be saddened by the loss of Robin Cook at the age of just 59.

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