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UK officials fear Blair may become fall guy

Shyam Bhatia in London | February 04, 2004 01:34 IST

Many feel British Prime Minister Tony Blair may become the 'fall guy' for the policy failures of the United States and the UK in Iraq.

The British premier has already been forced into a U turn by agreeing to a probe into Iraq's alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction.

His climbdown follows the decision by US President George W Bush to announce an investigation into American pre-war intelligence, which will publish its conclusions after the November presidential election.

Nervous UK officials are concerned that Bush's need to cover his back before his election could see the UK being blamed for the failure to find WMDs in Iraq.

Immediately after Bush announced his government's inquiry on Monday, US officials made clear the White House would focus on the 'broader context', including the role played by British intelligence in briefing policy makers in Washington and London.

The CIA are on record as blaming their British counterparts for overstating the strength of Saddam's armoury. Memories are still fresh in Washington of a famous speech delivered to the United Nations by US Secretary of State Colin Powell in which he praised the 'exquisite' detail of British intelligence assessments of Iraq's weapons.

Some of that assessment was taken from a controversial dossier prepared by Blair's advisers and derived in part from a student's doctoral thesis on Iraq.

US and British experts later also differed over claims that Saddam tried to buy uranium ore from Niger for his defunct nuclear weapons programme. Whereas US experts questioned the authenticity of the uranium story, their British counterparts insisted they had independent confirmation.

In London the government has confirmed the inquiry committee headed by Lord Butler will examine intelligence on the WMD programmes, the global trade in WMDs, as well as the accuracy of pre-war intelligence on Iraqi WMDs and any discrepancies with what was eventually found.

But British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told MPs that the leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats' Charles Kennedy had chosen not to support the inquiry.

Straw said the committee would work closely with the commission to be set up by the White House to investigate WMD intelligence on Iraq and the Iraq Survey Group.

Echoing Blair's insistence that  the decision to go to war with Iraq had been justified, he said: "The decision which this House took 10 months ago to go to war was justified given the defiance of a regime, which uniquely had used WMDs and had refused to comply with obligations unanimously imposed upon it by the United Nations Security Council."

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell explained his party's refusal to take part in the inquiry, saying it objected to its remit.

Sir Menzies told MPs he had no criticism of MPs who were taking part but added, "It is a matter of profound regret that we feel unable to endorse the remit announced by the foreign secretary. Our objections relate to the remit the foreign secretary has announced. It's a remit that's confined to intelligence and weapons of mass destruction. It deals neither with the workings of government nor with the political decision making based on intelligence."

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