According to Tony Blair at his press conference yesterday, ”The so–called smoking gun has turned out to be a damp squib.” This dismissive reference to the publication of the advice on the legality of the Iraq war, given to Mr Blair by the Attorney General on March 7, 2003, shows how desperate the prime minister now is to find reasons to ”move on” from the Iraq war debate. Although the Attorney General did not categorically say in his advice that the war would be illegal, he raised a number of questions which showed that he had ”serious reservations” about its legality. Among these were the desirability of a second UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force (which was never obtained) and a warning that it was for the Security Council itself, not the British government, to determine whether Iraq was in breach of previous UN resolutions (a warning that Mr Blair ignored when he made the judgement himself). The Attorney General also advised that it would not be justifiable to cite an ”unreasonable” veto of any US/UK resolution as reason to take unilateral military action; yet this is exactly what Mr Blair and Mr Jack Straw did in the House of Commons on March 18, 2003, when blaming France for Britain's failure to get a second resolution.

Three big questions remain unanswered: why had the Attorney General withdrawn all his reservations by the time he briefed the Cabinet orally on March 17 that the war would be legal?; why did no member of the Cabinet ask to see the summary of the Attorney General's earlier advice?; and why did Mr Blair and Mr Straw give no indication of the reservations originally held by the Attorney General when they briefed the House of Commons on March 18? Until these questions are satisfactorily answered the strong suspicion will remain that Mr Blair was ”economical with the truth” when he won the support of the House of Commons for the invasion of Iraq.



Iraq got its government yesterday, sort–of. The National Assembly voted by 180 to 5, with 90 abstentions, for a list provided by the Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari. However, seven ministerial posts were still left vacant, among them the important oil and defence ministries and also those for electricity, industry and human rights, and two deputy prime minister's posts. The outcome was confusing and made more so by an indication that Ahmed Chalabi will be acting oil minister and a deputy prime minister.

Iraq has thus the skeleton of its first democratically elected government in 50 years and the Shias and Kurds will for the first time share the power held for so long by Saddam Hussein's Sunnis. But Prime Minister Jaafari has by law only until 7 May to complete his ministerial list and the Iraqi people, who have now waited almost three months since they voted in such impressive numbers, will hope that he can meet this deadline. His difficulties, of course, are in balancing the powerful Shia and Kurdish factions and in finding a way to give a role to the Sunnis acceptable both to them and to the Shias and Kurds.

It is something of a surprise to see the name of Ahmed Chalabi so prominently placed. He has had a roller–coaster ride in Iraq since he arrived there in the immediate aftermath of the invasion as the favoured son of the American administration after long years of exile in the United States. After serving as a member of the US–appointed Iraqi Governing Council he lost favour was at was at one point arrested by the Americans and charged with counterfeiting and providing information to Iran. But Mr Chalabi has shown more than once in his life that he is a survivor, and he continues to do so.


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