Doubts over Iraq air strikes

by Michael White and Richard Norton-Taylor

Special report: Iraq 
guardian unlimited

The government's insistence that the US and British air strikes against Iraq are justified under international law is less firmly endorsed in Whitehall than ministers admit publicly, informed sources said last night.

Private doubts about the legal basis of the no-fly zones over Iraq resurfaced as angry Labour MPs, MEPs and union leaders gave Tony Blair clear signals that they will be much more sceptical about intimate military cooperation with Washington now that a Republican administration is back in power - even though a general election is just weeks away.

In public Mr Blair and his senior colleagues argue that the threat to the west from "rogue states" such as Iraq is real and leaves Britain and the US "perfectly entitled to deter aggression" as the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, put it.

Allied arguments have cut little ice around the world as Arab leaders united in opposition to the air strikes and allowed the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, to portray himself as victim rather than aggressor.

Under the Tories, successive legal advisers, including Lord Williams of Mostyn, the attorney-general, have reassured ministers that the no-fly zones are sanctioned by international law.

However authoritative sources said last night: "They are less confident in private."

Labour's rank and file is also more sceptical. Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, and Glenys Kinnock MEP expressed doubts about Friday night's bombings and the 10-year policy of sanctions which have failed to bring President Saddam to heel.

George Galloway, the arabist Labour MP, flew to Baghdad and likened Friday's attack to "Hitler marching into Czechoslovakia" in 1939.

"What the British and American governments are doing is reckless, lawless and murderous. If they are not already working for Saddam Hussein then they might as well be because for every bomb that is dropped, Saddam is getting stronger," the Glasgow Kelvin MP said.

More than 2,000 people - including Iraq's deputy foreign minister, Nabil Najim - protested against the bombings in Baghdad and at least 1,000 other protesters gathered near the offices of the ruling al-Ba'ath party.

"This dangerous aggression shows how much the Americans and Britons hate Iraqis and do not respect any international law," Mr Najim told the demonstrators. "This aggression must be condemned."

Mr Blair and the foreign secretary, Robin Cook, led a platoon of ministers in defending the US-UK action as necessary to protect their air sorties from anti-aircraft attack by President Saddam's forces - and thereby to save the Kurds of northern Iraq and the southern Shi'ites from his murderous revenge.

That is the legal basis which ministers invoke when challenged: the right under international law to intervene to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe such as the use of chemical weapons to kill 5,000 Kurdish villagers in the 1980s when the west still tilted towards President Saddam in his war with Iran.

But, the no-fly zones are not specifically sanctioned by any UN security council resolution. Four days before Mr Blair flies into Washington to meet President George Bush, it emerged that Friday's air strikes were cleared by both leaders after requests from military commanders, the RAF as much as the USAF.