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