LONDON - British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday that the allegation made against him in a radio news report in May - that he misused intelligence about Iraq's weapons for political purposes - was so serious that he would have left office had it been true.
Blair denied trying to put pressure on the government scientist who was the anonymous source for the report. The scientist, David Kelly, a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, apparently committed suicide July 17 after the government, with Blair's approval, devised a plan to make his name public.
The scientist was caught in a bitter battle between Blair's government and the British Broadcasting Corp. over a news story quoting an unnamed source - Kelly - as saying that Blair's government had ordered an intelligence report to be made more dramatic to enhance the case for action against Iraq.
"Had the allegation been true, it would have merited my resignation," Blair told a judicial inquiry looking into Kelly's death. "It was not a small allegation, it was absolutely fundamental."
Yesterday was a day of drama at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, as Blair became only the second British prime minister in history to appear before a judicial inquiry. With opinion polls showing that two-thirds of British voters believe that they were misled about Iraqi weapons, Blair's appearance was seen as crucial to his ability to survive in office.
Blair tried to tread a fine line as he was faced with e-mail and memos from his office suggesting to Britain's intelligence officials that they change the intelligence document.
He acknowledged that his office wanted the document to make as strong a case as possible for international action against Iraq, preferably through the United Nations, regarding its possession of weapons of mass destruction. But he said he wanted the document, which was presented to Parliament and the public, to come from "an objective source" - Britain's intelligence agencies.
"It was important that it made the best case that we could - subject, obviously, to it being owned by the Joint Intelligence Committee, and that the items of intelligence should be those that the agencies thought could and should be included," he said.
The inquiry, conducted by Lord Hutton, a senior judge, has turned up communications that show that Blair's government took an intense interest in how the document was shaping up.
The key charge in the BBC report was that the document's most alarming claim, that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological warheads within 45 minutes, was inserted into the document over the objections of intelligence officials.
So far, the Hutton inquiry has not established the truth of that charge.
Blair generally handled questions with ease, pressing the points he wanted to make: The dossier was prepared in response to public clamor for the information on which he was basing policy toward Iraq. He approved the forcing of Kelly's name into the public arena only to avoid being accused of a cover-up.