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Inquiry Report to Drag Blair Back Into Iraq Mire
Published on Thursday, July 8, 2004 by Reuters
Inquiry Report to Drag Blair Back Into Iraq Mire
by Mike Peacock
 

LONDON - Britain's Tony Blair, yearning to put behind him a year in which Iraq has wreaked havoc on his ratings, faces a new test of his ability to escape the mire.

Former top civil servant Lord Butler will deliver a report next Wednesday on the intelligence the government received about Saddam Hussein's weaponry.

British espionage will inevitably face some criticism but so too might the government.

The prime minister persuaded a reluctant parliament to back war on Iraq last year on the basis that it had biological and chemical weapons and was ready to use them.

A notorious UK dossier from September 2002 said some could have been fired within 45 minutes of an order to do so. Yet over a year after Saddam was ousted, no such weapons have been found.

Butler's report will reopen those wounds although Blair tried to pre-empt it this week, admitting for the first time banned weapons may never be found.

The inquiry of Butler and his team has been sifting evidence for the past five months. "These are serious people," said Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee which assesses intelligence for the government. "I would trust them to produce a report which actually gave us real insights into what went wrong, and clearly things did go wrong."

Butler's remit was to study the accuracy of intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and make recommendations for the future gathering, evaluation and use of intelligence.

BAD TIMING

Question marks over the premier's pre-war claims are nothing new -- last year, parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee labeled the 45 minutes assertion "unhelpful."

But the timing of the Butler report is poor for Blair as he attempts to refocus voters on domestic issues with a general election probably less than a year away. He will respond to the report with a statement to parliament to try and draw a line under his Iraq troubles.

A day later, Blair faces two parliamentary by-elections in central England. Both should be easy wins for his Labor party but they have big Muslim communities, making an anti-war backlash probable.

Much of the ground was covered earlier this year by Lord Hutton's inquiry into the suicide of weapons expert David Kelly.

Kelly killed himself after being exposed as the source of a BBC report, now recognized to be flawed, that the government knew the 45-minute claim was probably wrong.

Blair was fully exonerated by judge Hutton but his probe unearthed facts that Butler is likely to have revisited.

It found several defense intelligence officials whose doubts about the dossier were not acted upon and cast a critical light on the relationship between Blair's then media chief, Alastair Campbell, and John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

The Butler team also asked whether officials "spun" intelligence to the media, sources close to the inquiry say, and looked at the use ministers made of it when spelling out the case for war.

© 2004 Reuters Ltd

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