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U.K.: Blair Fiercely Defends Decision To Wage War On Iraq

British Prime Minister Tony Blair today resolutely defended his case for going to war with Iraq and dismissed claims that he misled Britain by exaggerating the threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Blair, who was questioned by the House of Commons' Liaison Committee, said there is no doubt that Iraq had been developing weapons of mass destruction.

Prague, 8 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair today rejected accusations that he misled Britain over the case for war in Iraq and reiterated his conviction that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) will be found in Iraq.

Blair was questioned by the House of Commons' Liaison Committee, which is made up of more than 30 heads of Parliament's select committees.

Blair's appearance before the committee came one day after a separate parliamentary body -- the Foreign Affairs Committee -- cleared him and a top aide of allegations that the government had "sexed up," or exaggerated, evidence of Iraq's weapons.

Blair today firmly defended his case for waging war against Iraq, saying he stands "100 percent" by his decision. "I am well aware of the fact that people want to revisit the essential argument as to whether we were right or we were wrong [about Iraq]. I simply want to tell you today, and through you, the country -- I believe we did the right thing. I stand 100 percent by it, and I think that our intelligence services gave us the correct intelligence and information at the time," Blair said.

The United States and Britain went to war against Iraq on the basis that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction posed a serious threat. But the failure so far to discover evidence of any such weapons has stirred controversy in Britain and put the credibility of Blair's government on the line.

The Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday found that Blair had misrepresented some of the information presented in a dossier to Parliament last September on Iraq's weapons, part of which had been lifted from a student thesis available on the Internet. The committee said a claim that Iraq had been able to deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order being given did not warrant the prominence given to it in the report because it was based on intelligence "from a single, uncorroborated source."

But Blair refused to admit to any deception and insisted that the information, including the alleged capability of Iraq to deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, had been right at the time.

"I accept that what we should have done is we should have said that this middle part of the document was actually taken from a reference document [available on the Internet]," Blair said. "I didn't know at the time that when I put it before Parliament [last September], it should have been sourced in that way. Can I just make the point, however, [that] the information in it was actually correct."

The weapons row has been exacerbated by a dispute between the government and Britain's much-respected public broadcaster, the BBC, which in May quoted an unnamed intelligence source as saying British officials "sexed up" data to justify war.

But the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday cleared Blair's cabinet of that accusation. The government has demanded an apology from the BBC, which the broadcaster has refused to offer, saying it stands by its report.

Blair today also rejected the Foreign Affairs Committee's conclusion that the jury is still out on the existence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. He said he has no doubt that Saddam Hussein was trying to reconstitute his weapons programs.

"You would almost think that this question of Saddam and weapons of mass destruction was some invention of the CIA and British intelligence. There is no doubt whatever that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction."

The committee also asked Blair why Hussein did not use weapons of mass destruction against coalition troops if his regime indeed possessed such weapons.

Blair argued that once it was clear to the Iraqi regime that UN weapons inspectors were ready to go back to Iraq late last year, Hussein began a "concealment program" that reduced his ability to use them.

"As we said last September, and this is entirely consistent with the pattern of previous years, the moment [Hussein] realized inspectors were on their way back, and at that point he did, frankly, because [U.S. President] George [W.] Bush had gone to the United Nations and said they're going to get their inspectors back in there -- people could see what was coming down the line -- [Hussein] then engaged in an active program of concealment, and all the things that we are learning today about the lengths he goes to conceal those weapons programs is entirely consistent with the intelligence that we had. So, I think I've also said on several occasions that the one advantage of this program of concealment is that it does place an inhibition on his ability to use the weapons [of mass destruction] quickly," Blair said.

Blair said it became clear to him that war could not be avoided a few days before the vote in the House of Commons on 18 March. He said by then it had become "obvious we could not get a second UN resolution that delivered an ultimatum to Saddam."

Blair expressed confidence that teams searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq will be successful, but he urged more patience. "Let us wait and see what [the teams] do actually find in the interviews that they are now beginning to carry out with the scientists and the experts and the witnesses," he said. "I simply tell you my view is that I am very confident that they will find the evidence that such programs existed and that Saddam was developing [them] and tried to conceal them."

But if Blair's confidence in the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq remains unwavering, that is not true of the British public's trust in the prime minister. An opinion poll in London's "The Times" today found that more than half of Britons say they do not trust Blair and that most believe he is no more honest than other politicians.

The poll also found that support in Britain for the war has fallen from almost two-thirds of the electorate at the time of the conflict to less than half now.