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U.K.: Blair Prepares To Take 'Hot Seat' At Kelly Enquiry

  • Kathleen Moore

The enquiry into the death of British weapons expert David Kelly is subjecting the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair to some uncomfortable scrutiny. Thousands of pages of freshly released documents -- including private e-mails -- reveal how the government prepared its case for war. The documents' publication comes as Blair readies himself to testify before the enquiry later this week.

Prague, 25 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Tony Blair has just returned from his summer holiday, but the heat is still very much on the British prime minister.

He'll be testifying this week before an enquiry into the death of the British weapons expert, David Kelly.

Kelly was found with a slashed wrist last month, shortly after being named as the source for a BBC report claiming the government exaggerated Iraq's weapons threat in the run-up to war.

So far the enquiry has heard from journalists, MPs, and some of Blair's top aides -- including his director of communications, Alastair Campbell.

It's already damaged the government. A poll this weekend showed two-thirds now believe the government misled them over the reasons for war. And one-third said Blair should resign over the affair.

Wyn Grant, a professor of politics at Warwick University, says Blair's day at the enquiry is a chance for him to try and win back some of that trust.

"This is an opportunity for him to try and restore his reputation. But it may be that public trust -- abetted by the way some parts of the media have treated this issue -- has really been eroded to such an extent that it will be really difficult to restore that trust because sufficient areas of doubt will remain," Grant said.

The enquiry -- led by senior judge Brian Hutton -- is specifically examining the circumstances surrounding Kelly's death. But it has also shined a light on how the government prepared its case for war in order to win over a skeptical public.

Thousands of pages of documents were released by the enquiry over the weekend, including private e-mails between government officials.

They show how the language was gradually strengthened in successive drafts of the September dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

In early September, for example, there was no mention of the controversial claim that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes.

That claim was in the final dossier published on 24 September.

In another section, the assertion that Iraq "probably" continued to produce chemical and biological weapons became a statement of fact.

And e-mails and memoranda show that Campbell sought to reword the passage on Iraq's nuclear ambitions in order to boost the threat. One draft said Iraq would need five years to produce a nuclear weapon. The final version shortened that to "between one and two years."

Grant of Warwick University says it's not unusual for government documents to undergo a number of drafts. Clearly the government wants to persuade the public of the strength of its case. But, he adds, there is a limit.

"In doing that, it maybe went a little further than it should have done. It will be interesting to see when we have questioning of some of the principal actors in this drama what exactly comes out of that. But it may well be the case that in its anxiety to persuade the public of the desirability of an intervention in Iraq that perhaps language was strengthened a little bit more than it should have been," Grant said.

Vikram Dodd has been following the enquiry for "The Guardian" newspaper. He says one of the most interesting things to come out of the weekend documents is that they show how closely Blair was involved in the "outing" of Kelly as the BBC's anonymous source. Up to now it was assumed the defense secretary, Geoff Hoon, was ultimately responsible -- and he's been widely expected to resign as a result.

Dodd says it's a dangerous time for Blair: "The [conventional] wisdom here is that it probably won't cost him his job or lead to a resignation. But we just don't know. There are landmines all over the place, and don't forget this is still very early on in Lord Hutton's enquiry. We still have Stage Two, where anybody facing criticism will be re-examined. Plus they can be examined by barristers, lawyers from the BBC, or the Kelly family. So there's danger from here on in for the prime minister and the government."

The enquiry resumes tomorrow with evidence from John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which drew up the dossier. Defense Secretary Hoon follows on 27 August, with Blair due to appear the day after.