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Iraq leak puts pressure on Blair


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Unpopular in Britain, President Bush stays away from Blair during campaign.

The legality of British PM Tony Blair's decision to join the Iraq war is challenged.

Iraq war puts the trust in Blair to the test. CNN's Robin Oakley reports.
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LONDON, England -- UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush were determined to topple Saddam Hussein at least nine months before they launched the war in Iraq, according to documents leaked to a British Sunday newspaper.

Observers say the secret documents could have an impact in Britain's election on Thursday, in which Iraq -- and whether the prime minister told the truth when making his case for war -- has resurfaced as an issue in the final week of campaigning.

Blair has always maintained he did not commit Britain to attacking Iraq until Saddam had been given a final chance to abandon banned weapons, and that "regime change" -- overthrowing Saddam -- was never his aim.

Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, Blair emphasized that Britain had been instrumental in trying to resolve the crisis through the United Nations.

"What happened subsequent to that meeting is that we went the United Nations route. We went back the United Nations in November to give them a last chance," he said.

He also said he found it "frustrating" that so much election campaigning involved "issues of the past," which he said proved the opposition had "nothing serious to say" about issues facing Britain.

Despite hostility to Blair over his Iraq policy, polls show he is likely to win a third term in the election, though his huge parliamentary majority is expected to shrink.

Blair has been careful to say he believes the election result may still be in doubt. In an interview with the Observer newspaper, he urged anti-war voters not to cast a protest vote.

The Sunday Times printed what it said were secret minutes of a top-level cabinet meeting held in July 2002 to discuss Iraq, nine months before the invasion. According to the minutes, Blair spoke to his cabinet explicitly in terms of toppling Saddam.

"If the political context were right, people would support regime change," Blair is recorded as saying. "The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work."

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the case for war was "thin" because "Saddam was not threatening his neighbors and his WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

Straw proposed giving Saddam an ultimatum to allow in U.N. weapons inspectors, provoking a confrontation that would "help with the legal justification for the use of force."

Britain's spy chief, Sir Richard Dearlove, fresh from a trip to Washington, had concluded that war was "inevitable" because "Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action", and "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Blair ordered his chief of defence staff, Sir Michael Boyce, to present him with war plans later that week, the minutes said.

The Sunday Times document was the second major Iraq leak to emerge in the final week before the election. Last week Channel Four news leaked advice to Blair in which the attorney general raised doubts about whether the war would be legal.

Meanwhile, Labour has a 3 percent lead over the Conservatives in the final Sunday Times-YouGov poll before Thursday's election. But an Independent on Sunday poll puts Tony Blair's lead over Michael Howard much higher at 8 percent.

Blair was also given a boost by winning the support of several of the Sunday newspapers.

The News of the World, The People and the Sunday Mirror all offer solid support for Labour.

But the Sunday Express is backing the Conservatives and inviting readers to help "kick out" Blair's Labour government.


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