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Iraq: WMD In Dispute, 'Teflon Tony' Takes The Heat While Bush Unscathed

Since the end of the war in Iraq, everyone, it seems, has noticed one glaring absence -- evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the main justification for the war. It's raised questions on both sides of the Atlantic. Why have none been found and did governments exaggerate the threat? But while Britain's prime minister has come in for a real grilling over the issue, there's been comparatively little pressure on U.S. President George W. Bush.

Prague, 18 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Since the war in Iraq ended, questions over Saddam Hussein's elusive weapons of mass destruction have dogged British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

A poll out in Britain this week shows over half believe claims the government deliberately exaggerated the weapons threat -- claims Blair was forced to deny in parliament. An intelligence report on Iraq's weapons threat has been derided as "the dodgy dossier" as chunks of it were lifted from a student's thesis.

And now a parliamentary enquiry has begun into the decision to go to war, hearing evidence yesterday from two former cabinet members who quit over Iraq. Clare Short was one of them: "I think it's a series of half-truths, exaggerations, reassurance that weren't the case, to get us into conflict by the spring. And I think that commitment had been made by the previous summer, and I think nothing else explains the failure to allow [UN chief weapons inspector Hans] Blix to complete his process."

Contrast Blair's troubles with how similar claims are playing out in the U.S. To be sure, there are some critics -- people President George W. Bush says are acting like "revisionist historians."

"Again, the president has every confidence that the intelligence that he received is accurate intelligence, and that weapons of mass destruction will indeed be found," White house spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday.

The Intelligence Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives is today also starting hearings into the intelligence used to back the weapons claims. But unlike in Britain there will be no formal inquiry. A poll out this month showed most Americans feel their government did not mislead them over weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It's just not adding up to the same pressure.

Karlyn Bowman, an expert on public opinion polls at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, told RFE/RL, "Unlike Britain, I think Americans have had long and very well-formed views about Saddam Hussein."

She continued: "That probably explains why even before the Bush administration raised the issue of [weapons of mass destruction] that when CBS asked the question in February 2002 whether Iraq had WMD, 80 percent said the country probably did. A CBS poll this [week] says 62 percent say removing Saddam Hussein from power was worth the loss of American life and other costs. Only 31 percent said it was not worth it. So again because of those well-formed views that they had about Saddam Hussein they've been convinced for a very long time that he posed a threat and that's why the issue is unlikely to move in the U.S."

In Britain, pubic support for the war was much lower. Many members of parliament in Blair's Labor Party were opposed, and others needed a lot of persuasion to sign on.

Professor Wyn Grant of Warwick University told RFE/RL there's also a broader political agenda driving Blair's critics. He said they see the issue as a way to finally get at the man dubbed "Teflon Tony" for repeatedly emerging unscathed from political rows.

"For a long time people both to the right and left of Blair have been looking for any opportunity to attack him. That's certainly true of people in his own party to the left who've accepted his agenda rather reluctantly and have really always been looking for an opportunity to challenge him and they feel this WMD issue presents such an opportunity," Grant said.

Grant suggested another reason the controversy is greater in the U.K. -- Britain had no equivalent of the 11 September 2001 attacks, and no corresponding surge in patriotism that, arguably, has softened domestic criticism in the U.S.

Still, if the row has left Bush relatively unscathed so far, there are still a couple of risks. One is if the controversy damages Blair -- that could rub off on the U.S. administration too. And it could have negative implications if and when the U.S. wants a heavyweight ally to beef up another coalition of the willing.

"It would depend on the precise circumstances, but if America wanted to take action against another so-called rogue state it would be more difficult [for Britain to support the U.S.]. There's been a considerable erosion of Blair's ability to deliver on that, he did take a considerable political risk in supporting them [over Iraq]," Grant said.

Still, that's a big "if." For now, Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute said the Bush administration need not worry about the current row. "Americans give their presidents considerable latitude in foreign policy once a basic level of trust has been established. Bush didn't have that trust before [11 September 2001], he clearly has it now, his marks on handling foreign policy on war issues are extraordinarily high. it's unlikely to dent his armor. [There are] people who think he deliberately misled the nation, there are some people who see political motivations in it, there are others who thing the intelligence has been bad all along, but [it's] just unlikely to affect him," Bowman said.

She said the hearings in Congress would have to come up with something "really explosive" to inflict any damage.