Wed, Jul 23, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Blair expresses no regret; denies he leaked Kelly's name

REUTERS , BEIJING AND ON BOARD BLAIR'S PLANE

British British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday he had no regrets over the war on Iraq despite questions about its justification after the death of a British scientist and an approval rating that has plummeted below zero.

Speaking to Chinese students during an Asian tour, Blair said he would not comment in detail on the suicide of British scientist David Kelly, who slit his wrist after becoming embroiled in a row over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the case the government made for war.

Despite the political crisis sparked by Kelly's death, the prime minister said he did not regret taking action against Iraq.

"No, I don't regret it. I've no doubt at all that Iraq was trying to develop these weapons. I believe, however difficult it was, that it was the right thing to do," Blair told a student questioner at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Blair said that the Iraq survey group had only just begun to do their work, and when they came to make their report, "people will see what the truth is."

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in post-war Iraq has severely damaged Blair's popularity and undermined his government's credibility.

The death of Kelly, a former UN weapons inspector, has piled pressure on the embattled prime minister and sparked some calls for his resignation. Sterling remained under pressure after recovering from a three-month low against the dollar on Monday.

Government ministers had named Kelly as the source of allegations aired on the BBC that Blair's officials had "sexed up" the report justifying war.

Blair and his Labour Party have tumbled in public opinon polls beneath the political storm. An ICM poll published in yesterday's Guardian newspaper showed public faith in Blair's trustworthiness had slumped by 12 points in the past month to just 39 percent.

It also showed Blair's personal approval rating down to minus 17 from plus seven on the so-called "Baghdad Bounce" in the immediate aftermath of the war to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The poll put Labour support at 36 percent compared to the opposition Conservatives who were static at 34 percent.

Blair declined to answer part of the student's question about how he thought he could get through this political crisis and regain the trust of the British people.

Blair said this was a "desperately sad" time for Kelly's family and that a proper independent inquiry would establish what had happened.

But on Iraq, he said: "I believe what we did was right."

Blair has said he would cooperate fully with Lord Hutton, who is running the inquiry into Kelly's death.

Later on in the day, British Prime Minister Tony Blair denied that he had authorized the leaking of defence expert David Kelly's name to the media, days before the scientist's apparent suicide.

"My starting point is that I believe we've acted properly throughout," said Blair.

"I did not authorize the leaking of the name of David Kelly," Blair told reporters on a flight to Hong Kong, before adding: "Once the name is out there, that's a completely different matter."

The ministry confirmed Kelly's identity to journalists who inquired about him.

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