Blair denies 'sexing-up' dossier on Iraqi weapons

 

British Prime Minister Mr Tony Blair has denied claims by the BBC that his government "sexed up" a dossier on Iraq's weapons capabilities to justify going to war.

Mr Blair appeared this morning at the Hutton Inquiry into the death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly, who was found dead last month, having apparently committed suicide after being pushed into the limelight to face questioning over the dossier.

During over two hours of questioning, Mr Blair told the inquiry: "The aim of the dossier was to disclose our reasons for war and the reasons why we felt this issue had to be informed.

"The strategy was not to use the dossier as the immediate reason to go to conflict, but as the reason why we had to return to the issue of Saddam and weapons of mass destruction."

He said there was "absolutely no reason for us to doubt" intelligence that Iraq could launch a military strike within 45 minutes.

Mr Blair was then questioned about Mr Andrew Gilligan's BBC Radio 4 Todayprogramme report on May 29th which claimed the dossier had been altered at the behest of Downing Street.

Mr Blair said there was a feeling that there were "parts of the BBC that were not covering it [the war] in as objective a way as it ought" and he was aware that his communications director, Mr Alastair Campbell, had made complaints about certain stories on the Iraq conflict.

He told the inquiry that he was visiting British troops in Basra on the morning of May 29th when he was told about Mr Gilligan's report. Asked his reaction, the Prime Minister said: "It was an extraordinary allegation to make and an extremely serious one."

Mr Blair said three aspects of the report had stood out as being contentious: that the 45-minute claim had been inserted at the behest of Number 10, that it had been done knowing the claim to be wrong, and that it was against the wishes of the intelligence services.

"It is one thing to say we disagree with the government, we should not have gone to war, people can have a disagreement about that . . . but if the allegation had been true, it would have merited my resignation," he said.

Inquiry counsel Mr James Dingemans QC read an extract of the Todayprogramme broadcast, quoting Mr Gilligan saying that Downing Street had "sexed up" the dossier. Mr Blair said: "Any person listening to that would think that we had done something improper."

The Prime Minister said it had always been his view that the only thing that would correct the story was a "clear and unequivocal statement that the original story was wrong". As the saga unfolded in the coming weeks, Mr Blair began to think that such a statement was unlikely. "To be blunt about it, I thought we had to move on."

Mr Blair was asked if any concern was expressed about the pressure being placed on Dr Kelly. "All I can say was that there was nothing . . . we had that would have alerted us to him being anything other than someone, you know, of a certain robustness who was used to dealing with the interchange between politics and the media," he replied.

"Having said that, it is never a pleasant thing, indeed it is a deeply unpleasant thing, for someone to come suddenly into the media spotlight."

The Hutton Inquiry was set up to investigate how Dr Kelly apparently came to take his own life after being identified as the likely source of the report by Mr Gilligan.

Dr Kelly's death, and the failure after the war to find any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to back up the dossier, have sent Mr Blair's trust ratings plummeting. A recent newspaper poll in Britain showed 67 per cent of those questioned thought his government had deceived the public.

Additional reporting: PA