Blair: the attacks mount up

By Kim Sengupta and Nigel Morris

The Independent

19 July 2004

Tony Blair is facing fierce and sustained attacks over Iraq from opposition parties, weapons inspectors and a former intelligence chief as he prepares for a crucial Commons debate on the Butler report.

The Prime Minister was condemned yesterday by the former chief of US weapons inspections in Iraq for going to war on flawed evidence. David Kay, handpicked by the CIA to find Saddam Hussein's arsenal, said Mr Blair and President George Bush should have known that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction.

Hans Blix, the UN weapons inspector, stirred the row by describing Mr Blair's haste to war as an "error of judgement" while a former intelligence chief in Britain suggested that the evidence given to the Hutton inquiry by John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, had been "economical with the truth".

Michael Ancram, the Tory deputy leader, said that Mr Blair still had difficult questions to answer. If he did not address them in tomorrow's debate, he should "consider his position", he added. The Liberal Democrats also cranked up the pressure in the run-up to the criticial debate in the Commons.

Bill Clinton, the former US president, also intervened in the debate saying that intelligence reports he had seen from 1992 to 2000, during his period in office, did not suggest Saddam posed an imminent threat.

Last week, the Butler committee concluded the bulk of the intelligence in the September 2002 dossier was old, and almost all of the so-called new intelligence proved untrustworthy.

Mr Kay insisted there was no basis for Mr Blair to claim that Iraq had WMD or presented an imminent threat which required an invasion. The weapons inspector maintained that Mr Blair and Mr Bush had an agenda for war and were thus prepared to ignore the flaws in the WMD argument.

"I think the Prime Minister ... should have been able to tell before the war that the evidence did not exist for drawing the conclusion that Iraq presented a clear, present and imminent threat on the basis of existing weapons of mass destruction," he said. Mr Bush and Mr Blair had a "multitude" of other reasons for going to war, he added.

The Iraq Survey Group chief was backed by Mr Blix, who said Mr Blair was not "thinking with a sufficiently critical mind" when it came to judging the WMD issue. Asked on the Jonathan Dimbleby programme on ITV if Mr Blair was "on a witch hunt" and whether this was a "really important failure of political and intellectual judgement", Mr Blix replied: "I think there was an error of judgement."

Mr Scarlett, came under attack from one of his predecessors, Sir Paul Lever, over his failure to tell the Hutton inquiry that key evidence claiming Iraq had a WMD programme had been withdrawn by MI6. Sir Paul said Mr Scarlett had been "economical with the truth", adding: "I say this with sadness as a former chairman, the JIC has taken a knock."

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, declared that he would not have supported the Government in the vote on the eve of the invasion of Iraq if he had known the intelligence was so flawed. Tim Yeo, a shadow cabinet member, said: "It is a dangerous situation to have a prime minister who is now so distrusted by the public because he has been caught actually misleading people about the war."

The Government accused the Tories and Mr Howard of opportunism. Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, said: "It seems to me that he lacks any credibility whatsoever."

There was no clear response to a report that Downing Street managed to water down criticism in the Butler report, allowing the Prime Minister to say he acted in good faith.

The Tories and the Liberal Democrats warned that Mr Blair would face torrid questions at the Commons debate, especially about the failure of government witnesses to tell Lord Hutton that the key "intelligence" about Iraq's supposed WMD had been withdrawn by MI6 as untrustworthy.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said Mr Blair's fate would depend on the credibility of his answers.