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Blair: Iraq claims were not inflated

Times Staff Writer

LONDON -- Testifying at a judicial inquiry, British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday denied exaggerating Iraq's arsenal and defended his government's treatment of a scientist who raised questions about the need for war and later committed suicide.

The case has provoked the biggest crisis in Blair's six years in office, testing his credibility and threatening to bring down a senior member of his Cabinet.

Support for the war in Iraq has been further eroded by the military's failure to find weapons of mass destruction there and the continuing violence that has claimed the lives of about 50 British soldiers since March 20.

Appearing at the Royal Courts of Justice, Blair became only the second British prime minister forced to undergo questioning in a judicial inquiry.

Blair told the court that he was indignant about a BBC radio broadcast in May that accused his advisors of inserting dubious claims into a prewar dossier about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. If the accusations were true, Blair said, "it would have merited my resignation. It was not a small allegation, it was absolutely fundamental."

Blair arrived at the court and cast a steady glance at about 100 jeering protesters wearing Pinocchio noses. He then went inside to testify about the death of David Kelly, a Defense Ministry scientist and former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq.

In his smooth and direct style, Blair said the BBC broadcast, based on an interview with Kelly, had maligned him and his government.

Blair asserted that a dossier released Sept. 24 making the case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was prepared by spy agencies based on solid intelligence, including a claim that Saddam Hussein's regime could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes.

That statement, based on a report from a senior Iraqi military officer who was a spy for the MI6 intelligence agency, was the target of the BBC broadcast.

Blair told Lord Justice Brian Hutton, who is leading the inquiry, that he took full responsibility for the decision to publicly identify Kelly as the sole source of the BBC report. Critics say Kelly was swept up in a government vendetta against the network, which has been generally critical of the war.

Kelly killed himself last month after becoming distraught over sustained scrutiny by legislative committees, journalists and his bosses at the Defense Ministry. The inquiry so far has indicated that he had reservations about some of the allegations in the dossier, although he denied making some of the comments attributed to him in the broadcast.

Kelly's name had to be disclosed because it was likely to have been leaked, Blair said Thursday. The prime minister testified that he ordered senior officials to handle the matter "by the book" because he feared the government would later be accused of trying to cover up Kelly's admission of his contact with the BBC. The top civil servant in the Defense Ministry recommended concealing Kelly's identity, but he was overruled, according to evidence presented in the hearings.

"I cannot emphasize enough the fact that we thought literally at any moment this information was going to come out," Blair said. "Secondly, because of the sensitivity of this, it was better just to be open about it."

Opposition leaders chastised Blair on Thursday, saying he had adopted an official strategy that treated Kelly as an expendable pawn. The prime minister's account confirmed suspicions that the government is obsessed with image and reckless with facts, they said.

Conservative Party leaderIain Duncan Smith accused Blair of permitting "the systematic attempt to destroy or reduce [Kelly's] reputation in the public domain. And I think all of that, all of the aspects of the treatment of Dr. Kelly, lie at the heart of Downing Street. So that's the most shameful aspect of this whole saga."

Although Blair has come under fire from both the right and the left, he does not have any significant political challengers at the moment. His problems stem mainly from new postwar wariness about his highly personal political approach, which emphasizes morality and principles.

"A lot of people buy into the view that the government did exaggerate the Saddam threat in general terms," said Michael Cox, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. "If Blair could show weapons of mass destruction, happy Iraqis, oil flowing out of Iraq, it would be different. But the fact that they haven't found WMD, even more than what goes on in this inquiry, is what affects and shapes people's attitudes. It all makes Blair a weaker prime minister than he was a year ago."

Doubts about the reasons for the war have weakened Blair's ability to push difficult initiatives such as health-care reform or adoption of the euro. There is persistent speculation that the repercussions will bring down a senior official, perhaps Defense Minister Geoff Hoon, whose testimony Wednesday has been portrayed in some news reports as evasive.

Nonetheless, Blair's testimony on Thursday appeared to further weaken a central allegation made by the BBC reporter in the broadcast and in a subsequent newspaper column: that the prime minister's media advisor, Alastair Campbell, inserted dubious information about the 45-minute claim into the September dossier despite the objections of spy agencies.

An on-air BBC political analyst acknowledged after Thursday's hearing that Campbell apparently had been "acquitted" of that accusation. But others said the hearings have proved that Campbell and other Blair aides went too far in their efforts to strengthen language in documents prepared by intelligence experts.

Rejecting the idea that the dossier was an exercise in politicized intelligence, Blair called it a legitimate, even cautious, response to an "enormous clamor" for proof of the Iraqi menace.

"President Bush and I had a telephone call [last August], and we decided, look, we really had to confront this issue, devise our strategy and get on with it," Blair said. "Here we were saying this is a big problem, we have to deal with it. Why did we say this was a big problem? Because of the intelligence. And people were naturally saying, 'Produce that intelligence, then.'"

Blair displayed the verbal flair he has honed in raucous debates in Parliament. Lord Hutton and his chief investigator were thorough but respectful, refraining from the sometimes incredulous tone that tinged their questioning Wednesday of Hoon, the defense minister.

"Blair does well under fire," Cox said. "When most politicians say, 'How dare you malign my integrity,' people laugh into the back of their hand. When Blair does it, people say, 'Well you know, it's true, he does have integrity.' To be fair to him, he hasn't benefited much politically from the war."

The unusually open judicial process could also work in Blair's favor. His appearance culminated three weeks of testimony by a parade of Cabinet officials, rarely seen intelligence chiefs and key political advisors. Their evidence was accompanied by the release of reams of pages of top-secret memos, internal e-mails and other sensitive documents, all promptly disseminated on the Internet.

The evidence details the government's scramble last fall to make its case for supporting the Bush administration's confrontation with Iraq and, this summer, its all-out charge to respond to the BBC accusations.

The previous appearance of a prime minister before a judicial inquiry took place in 1994, when Blair's Conservative predecessor, John Major, testified before investigators reviewing 1980s arms sales to Iraq, made when Major was a government official.

The ultimate political impact of the current inquiry may not be clear until Hutton issues his conclusions. The judge's mission does not include evaluating the official case for war, although he will probably make some assessment of the debate over the dossier and, therefore, the question of political interference.

As for the reasons behind Kelly's death, the inquiry has offered hints into personal as well as political factors affecting the scientist's state of mind. Even before the uproar, he had been frustrated when he set off on a government inspection mission to Iraq and was turned back because of a paperwork foul-up.

His wife had been especially upset about the media onslaught on the day before his death. His supervisors were e-mailing him new questions about other contacts with reporters on the day he went out into the woods and, police say, slashed his left wrist.

Hutton will have to make a difficult determination about whether the government's treatment of Kelly was proper.

On Thursday, Blair did not offer words of condolence or regret for Kelly's death, surprising commentators who are accustomed to the prime minister's knack for the human touch.

Testifying that he and his aides discussed the potential pressure on Kelly if his employers made his name public, Blair said officials saw the scientist as a man "of a certain robustness" who was used to dealing with the media.

"Having said that, incidentally, it is never, ever a pleasant thing, indeed it is a deeply unpleasant thing, to come suddenly into the media spotlight," Blair said. "But there was, in my view, no way of avoiding the fact that you could not keep this information private."

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