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Iraq intelligence fallout vexes Blair

The controversy over British weapons expert David Kelly, the leaked source of a BBC report, who was buried Wednesday, has opened a Pandora’s Box of issues for Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government.
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Friends and family mourned Wednesday at the burial of British weapons expert David Kelly, who has been named as the source of a report accusing Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office of exaggerating intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs. The suicide of Kelly, a renowned authority on Saddam Hussein’s arsenals, has sparked an inquiry that is expected to further embroil Blair’s government in damaging charges that Downing Street misled the public in the run-up to the war.

Blair reached a milestone on Saturday when he became the longest serving Labor leader in Britain’s history. During his final press conference before leaving for Barbados with his wife and four children, the prime minister expressed his interest in remaining in office should his party be victorious in the next election, expected in 2005.

“There’s a big job of work still to do and my appetite to do it is still undiminished,” the 50-year-old prime minister told reporters last Wednesday.

Despite his enthusiasm, Blair’s popularity has languished over the discrepancy between pre-war statements on Iraq’s alleged arsenal, and the lack of post-war proof. Over half of the electorate, 52 percent, trusts Blair a little bit or not at all, while the Labor Party’s rating has fallen to its lowest in 16 years, according to a poll cited in The Times of London on Tuesday.

“I accept there is an issue that we have to confront,” Blair said last week when questioned about the British public’s lack of trust in the government.

“People need to know that what we did in Iraq was right and justified. That’s a case we have to not just assert, but prove over time, both in relation to weapons of mass destruction and in relation to the improvement of Iraq,” he said.

Although Americans also have expressed concern over the elusive WMDs, the “war on terrorism” and need for “regime change” were presented to the U.S. public as key factors for intervention prior to the war, and continue to dampen uncertainty over Saddam’s arsenal.

Almost daily comments by top Bush administration officials depict the campaign in Iraq as part of the global war on terrorism.

This week, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz all warned that foreign terrorists were behind attacks on the occupying forces in Iraq.

“Iraq now is the central battle in the war on terrorism,” Wolfowitz said on Fox television.


On this side of the Atlantic, the majority of the British public was against the war before it started, and Saddam’s deployable stock of chemical and biological weapons was seen as the one argument that won Blair support for the war. Those who were sold on this stance now believe they were deceived.

The latest torrent of public outrage has been focused on the suicide of British scientist and advisor on Iraq’s arsenal, Kelly, the leaked source of a British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) report, whose private Church of England funeral was held near his English countryside home on Wednesday.

An inquiry into Kelly’s death, seen as a key factor in Blair’s political future, opened last Friday and will get underway next week.

In the BBC report, a correspondent stated that a senior official had informed him that the British dossier on Iraq, published last September and influential to Bush’s State of the Union Address, was exaggerated against the wishes of the intelligence community.

Blair’s communications director, Alastair Campbell, was accused of “sexing-up” the dossier by adding that Iraq could deploy weapons in 45 minutes. Although Campbell was later cleared, the government admitted that “undue importance” was given to the statement.

As a high-profile row raged between the BBC and the government, the source’s name, David Kelly, was mysteriously leaked to newspaper reporters. Fingers pointed at Defense Minister Geoff Hoon who subsequently denied the allegations.

InsertArt(1978163)Shortly after being interrogated by the foreign affairs committee, Kelly, who made nearly 40 trips to Iraq as part of U.N. weapons inspections, was found dead with a self-inflicted laceration to his left wrist in a field near his home in Oxfordshire, northwest of London.

The forthcoming inquiry, led by Lord Hutton, an appeals court judge, will delve into what drove the mild-mannered scientist to take his life. Blair and his defense minister, among others, will be called into the spotlight as witnesses. The inquiry will attempt to discover who released Kelly’s name, if the government pressured the scientist to conceal information, and whether Kelly or the BBC journalist fabricated parts of the story.


Even as he relaxes in the equatorial sun, it is doubtful Blair, whose opponents have demanded he resign over the issue, can pass lightly over the array of accusations aimed at Downing Street.

Over the weekend, Ministry of Defense officials were charged with attempting to incinerate documents involving the Kelly affair. The ministry has denied any wrong-doing and has handed the papers over to the inquiry.

On the eve of the scientist’s funeral, Downing Street dismissed calls for the resignation of one of Blair’s official spokesmen. The trusted aid was accused by The Independent newspaper of calling Kelly a “Walter Mitty” figure — an allusion to the storybook character deluded with ideas of grandeur — hinting that Kelly did not have as large of a role in the dossier as he claimed.

Less than 24 hours after the comment was published, the spokesman and Blair’s deputy prime minister, in charge while Blair is on holiday, offered full apologies to the dead scientist’s family.

The “Walter Mitty” slur remained in the headlines Wednesday, adjacent to reports that the minister of defense, who is on a family vacation in America, was told to lie low.

Citing British Defense Ministry officials, the Times reported Wednesday that Hoon has been warned that photographs of him “having a nice time” on the day of the funeral would be deemed insensitive.’s Jennifer Carlile is based in London.