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U.K.: Blair Faces Heat In Parliament Over Alleged Iraqi Weapons

British Prime Minister Tony Blair faces growing pressure over whether his office exaggerated the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in order to win support for the Iraq war. Today, before the House of Commons, he denied any intent to mislead the public and said he would support a parliamentary inquiry into the matter. RFE/RL reports that the failure so far to find any banned weapons in Iraq is causing friction on both sides of the Atlantic.

Prague, 4 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has denied media reports his office intentionally misled parliament and the general public over the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Speaking to the House of Commons today, Blair rebuffed reports -- from anonymous intelligence sources -- that his office spiced up an intelligence report to make Iraq appear more threatening. Specifically, Blair's office was accused of adding a clause that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was capable of launching a biological attack within 45 minutes.

"There was no attempt at any time by any official or minister or member of Number 10 Downing Street to override the intelligence judgments of the Joint Intelligence Committee," Blair said.

The British prime minister dismissed as "completely and totally untrue" the claim that his office had introduced the clause that Iraq could attack in 45 minutes.

Blair said he would support an inquiry into the matter by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, but there is concern the committee's findings may not be publicized. The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee is also holding an inquiry.

In the run-up to the war, both Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush frequently alleged that Iraq was hiding massive stores of chemical and biological weapons, and even attempting to rebuild its nuclear weapons program, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Those allegations were used to justify the preemptive war in Iraq.

Yet, in spite of hundreds of inspections so far by U.S. and coalition teams in Iraq, no such weapons have been found.

Blair today acknowledged the failure to find any banned weapons, but said the search was only now beginning. He said it was not just his office but the entire international community that believed Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

"It was accepted by the entire international community, and not least by the UN Security Council, that Saddam Hussein did, indeed, have weapons of mass destruction, was a threat to the security of the world, which is why the [UN Security Council resolution 1441] was passed last November," Blair said.

While it remains unclear if any intelligence reports were doctored, in retrospect many claims made by Blair and others before the war now appear to be dubious.

In early March, for example, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told parliament that Iraq was relocating its weapons of mass destruction on trucks and trains "every 12 hours."

"We know that sensitive materials and documents have been hidden in the homes of [Iraqi] employees and hidden in hospitals, farms, and other sites. Intelligence also suggests that [weapons of mass destruction-] related items may have been buried," Straw said.

To be sure, significant caches of weapons of mass destruction may yet be found. UN weapons inspectors in the 1990s documented large amounts of banned substances whose destruction was never adequately proved. And coalition efforts to uncover evidence of illegal weapons have not been entirely fruitless. Last month, the United States announced the discovery of two trailers that appear suited to making biological weapons, although investigators apparently found no hard evidence.

Some observers argue that even if no weapons of mass destruction are ever found, that does not necessarily mean the war was unjust. Supporters of the war contend that even if Hussein did not possess banned weapons, he "acted" as if he did by failing to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors. Others add that the weapons issue is old news. They say Hussein is out and the important matter now is rebuilding Iraq.

Still, the failure to find any banned weapons at all has taken some of the luster off the coalition victory and raised uncomfortable questions for both Blair and Bush about the level of proof necessary when launching a preemptive campaign like the war in Iraq.

The London-based "Financial Times" newspaper addressed the issue in an editorial on 30 May, saying: "The intelligence failures in Iraq raise many questions, not least why Saddam Hussein was so unforthcoming to UN inspectors, if he had little left to hide. But there is one overwhelming caution for the Bush administration. If it ever wants to put its doctrine of preemptive war into practice again, it will need to come up with far more convincing proof of threats than it showed in Iraq."

In the United States, President Bush also faces growing pressure to prove that U.S. intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons programs was accurate.

The Central Intelligence Agency is conducting an internal review of a high-level intelligence report issued last fall that concluded Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and was attempting to rebuild its nuclear weapons program. That report was said to be crucial in the president's conviction of the need to go to war.

The review will reportedly also look into the role of the Pentagon in possibly manipulating or shaping the report's findings.

Lawmakers from both the Democratic Party and Bush's Republican Party have called for inquiries into what many say may have been a serious intelligence failure.

Any findings of negligence or worse, however, are unlikely to do serious damage to the president's popularity. Polls show three-quarters of Americans say Bush showed strong leadership on Iraq and that a sizable proportion (around 40 percent) of Americans believe -- erroneously -- that weapons of mass destruction have already been found.

But the weapons issue does not appear to be fading away, even as some officials are doing their best to put it behind them.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in a recent interview with the U.S. magazine "Vanity Fair," dismissed the issue of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, saying it was used to justify the war for "bureaucratic reasons." He said it was one issue on Iraq that everyone could agree on.

His boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on 28 May went so far as to say that Hussein himself may have destroyed the weapons. Critics dismissed that as an implausible scenario that raises the question why Hussein didn't let UN inspectors do that in order to spare himself a wartime defeat.

Even Blair isn't likely to believe that one. Weeks before, on 18 March, he told parliament: "We are asked now seriously to accept that, contrary to all history, contrary to all intelligence, [Saddam Hussein] decided unilaterally to destroy these weapons. I say such a claim is palpably absurd."

Rumsfeld later appeared to backtrack, saying he believed the intelligence on Iraq was "good" and that the weapons will be found.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.