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Blair Heckled Over Iraq 'Whitewash,' Debate Halted
Published on Wednesday, February 4, 2004 by Reuters
Blair Heckled Over Iraq 'Whitewash,' Debate Halted
by Katherine Baldwin and Mike Peacock
 

LONDON - Britain's Tony Blair batted off fresh attacks Wednesday over the case he made for war in Iraq and was heckled by anti-war protesters as the furor over Saddam Hussein's elusive banned weapons refused to die down.

The prime minister's comments during a parliamentary debate were interrupted by shouting from the public gallery.


NO MORE WHITEWASHES!
Supporters of 'The Stop The War Coalition' burn a copy of the Hutton Report outside Downing Street. The House of Commons was briefly suspended after a group of anti-Iraq war protesters shouted 'murderer' and other abuse at Prime Minister Tony Blair. (AFP/File/Alessandro Abbonizio)
"No more whitewashes!" one heckler shouted at Blair, before being evicted along with four others. The debate was briefly suspended while the gallery was cleared.

Former British weapons expert Brian Jones fanned the flames, alleging the government had overruled intelligence analysts to present a "misleading" pre-war dossier on Iraq's banned weapons.

The prime minister said Jones' concerns had been passed to his superiors when he first raised them but had not been upheld.

Bowing to pressure, Blair has set up an independent inquiry into possible intelligence flaws but the move failed to silence his critics.

In parliament, he defended the verdict of senior judge Lord Hutton who last week cleared the government of exaggerating the threat posed by Iraq.

Blair emerged spotless from Hutton's inquiry into last July's suicide of scientist David Kelly, who killed himself after being outed as the source of a BBC report that claimed the government had "sexed up" its dossier on Iraq's weaponry.

Large parts of the media and the public have branded Hutton's report -- which lambasted the BBC -- one-sided.

ANOTHER WHITEWASH?

Jones, now retired from the Ministry of Defense, stunned the Hutton inquiry when he told it he had complained to his bosses over the strength of language in the September 2002 dossier.

Wednesday, he went further, telling the Independent newspaper that his department's expert intelligence analysts were overruled in the preparation of that paper, leading to "a presentation that was misleading about Iraq's capabilities."

"I find it extraordinary that neither Cabinet nor parliament were told that all the experts on the Defense Intelligence Staff had reservations about the September dossier," Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who resigned over the war, said.

Blair's critics say the new inquiry -- set up only after Washington launched a similar probe -- is too limited and will not look at the way government made its case to the public.

The opposition Conservatives mocked Blair's U-turn. Until this week, he had resolutely refused to call a further inquiry.

"Where the President led, the Prime Minister followed," said Conservative leader Michael Howard.

Cook made the same jibe and said the government should give up its insistence that it did not dance to Washington's tune.

"Until Saturday, the government was resisting the call for an inquiry. By Monday it was organizing an inquiry," he said.

Blair repeated his refusal to allow the new probe to examine the political decisions on going to war. But he appeared to concede that it would be allowed to look at the way government used the intelligence it received, not just its accuracy.

"Of course it is important that it looks at the use of the intelligence, the gathering of it, the evaluation," he said.

Blair's hand was forced after former U.S. weapons hunter David Kay concluded Iraq had no stockpiles of banned weapons.

The premier insisted there was still a chance inspectors in Iraq would unearth some evidence of weapons of mass destruction. But he justified the war, even if nothing more was turned up.

"Even if they find only what they have found so far, we would have been irresponsible in the highest degree not to have acted against Saddam," he said.

© 2004 Reuters Ltd

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