Specter of Iraq haunts Tony Blair

Iraq has become Banquo’s ghost at the feast for Tony Blair, but unlike Macbeth, this time Blair cannot see the ghost and everyone else can. Despite trying to shift the agenda of British politics back to domestic issues and asking people to “draw a line under” Iraq and “move on,” his government is being hit with wave after wave of revelations and scandals that are keeping the issue on everyone’s mind.

It has been barely a month since the publication of the Hutton inquiry, viewed by many as a whitewash, into the death of UK weapons expert Dr. David Kelly, and there have been a number of high-profile stories that guarantee that Iraq will not be leaving the front page of UK papers any time soon. Blair’s re-election chances are looking increasingly doubtful, with many in the British media predicting his fall.

Former UK Cabinet Minister Clare Short recently dealt another damaging blow to Tony Blair’s government by claiming that she was shown secret transcripts of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s phone conversations that were obtained through illegal spying. This allegation prompted an angry response from a UN spokesman who said that, if true, “Such activities would undermine the integrity and confidential nature of diplomatic exchanges. … We are throwing down a red flag and saying if this is true ... stop it.” Tony Blair carefully avoided denying the allegations outright, but called Clare Short “deeply irresponsible.”

Charges against British intelligence employee Katharine Gun may now have been dropped, but the true fallout from her case has only just begun. Gun was charged with violating the UK’s Official Secrets Act after leaking a memo from the U.S. National Security Agency, which detailed a “surge” in covert intelligence gathering against UN members, to the UK’s Observer newspaper. The intelligence gathering operation was meant to help the Bush administration to form a strategy for dealing with UN members who were opposed to the war on Iraq in the run-up to the conflict.

Katharine Gun’s case attracted a lot of media attention even before any court case took place. She was backed by Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower, members of the U.S. Congress, ACLU leaders and prominent Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, among many others. The court case itself promised to draw even more attention to the memo that Gun had leaked, and to her plight.

The UK’s attorney general insists that the decision to drop the case against Katharine Gun was legal, not political. This explanation makes no sense though, since Gun openly admits violating the Official Secrets Act.

Many feel that the real reason that the Gun case was dropped is that the legality of the Iraq war would also be on trial. Part of the defense team’s case hinged on a request for a full copy of the attorney general’s legal advice to the British government on the legality of a war on Iraq. A summary of the advice has been published, but many suspect that the full text would be less than emphatic in its support for the war.

Questions over the legality of the Iraq war after the fact may seem academic to some, but the UK government is in a huge predicament over it. If questions regarding the legality of the war cannot be resolved, the British government could lose “battlefield immunity,” which protects it from legal cases arising from injuries or deaths during times of war. Battlefield immunity may no longer apply if the war is found to have had no legal basis in a British court, which would open the floodgates and allow thousands of claims against the government.

Tony Blair’s predecessor as prime minister, John Major, has demanded that Blair’s government clarify the legality of the war, saying that it was “poisoning the whole political atmosphere,” an unusual move for a former PM to make. Jeremy Carver, an international law expert who has been involved in the drafting of UN resolutions, went further in saying, “From everything we have learned … it has become obvious there was no valid basis for the war and therefore the war was illegal.”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.