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ELECTION IN BRITAIN

Rival uses leaked memo to question Blair's honesty

CARDIFF, Wales -- Michael Howard, the Conservative Party leader who hopes to be Britain's next prime minister, said yesterday that Tony Blair is a liar -- about the quality of prewar intelligence, and about the weakness of the legal case for the invasion to bring down Saddam Hussein.

''I'm not criticizing him for going to war. I'm criticizing him for not telling the truth, and for not having a plan" for securing the peace afterward, Howard said of Blair during an interview. ''He has a track record of not telling the truth. That's why character and trust are an issue in this election."

Howard, the Tories' third leader since Blair took office as prime minister in a landslide victory for his Labor Party in 1997, previously has attacked the government on several fronts -- immigration, crime, health, and the decision to go to war -- without denting its lead in opinion polls.

Critics say Howard's focus on Iraq is compromised by his own support for the war, and his stance that he'd have supported the Bush administration even if he'd known Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.

But Howard has responded by questioning whether voters next Thursday can trust Blair.

In a poll published yesterday in The Guardian newspaper, 44 percent of the sample agreed the prime minister was a liar, compared with 29 percent who felt the same about Howard.

The war became a major campaign issue this week as the advice of the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, on the legality of the invasion of Iraq was leaked in part, and then released in full by the prime minister's office.

The memo, which Blair had refused to disclose for two years, revealed Goldsmith's doubts about the legality of going to war without a second UN Security Council resolution. His publicly disclosed summary days later said a second resolution was not necessary.

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