Tue, Feb 03, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Blair seeks way to drop arms claims

TURNAROUND With the US expected to open an investigation into intelligence failures before the Iraq war, the British leader is working out his own climbdown


British Prime Minister Tony Blair will this week prepare the ground for a major climbdown on Iraq's elusive weapons of mass destruction when he acknowledges the need to come clean over the failure to uncover any banned weapons.

Amid growing jitters in senior government circles, as US President George Bush prepares to approve an independent inquiry into the apparent intelligence failure, a member of the Cabinet indicated on Sunday that ministers in Britain might eventually hold MI6 responsible.

In a move that is likely to enrage MI6, the House of Commons leader, Peter Hain, declared that the Cabinet approved the overthrow of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein on the basis of "categoric" intelligence.

"I saw evidence, it was categoric on Saddam possessing chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction," Hain told BBC One. "That informed our decision to go to topple him. I think we were right in doing so. But let's wait and see what the jury finds in the end."

His remarks, which highlighted the intense discussions at the highest levels of government, came as the White House prepares to support an independent inquiry into why intelligence appears to have been so flawed.

Britain is steadfastly resisting pressure for an inquiry on the grounds that the Iraq survey group, which is scouring the country for banned weapons, should be allowed to continue its work. But a well placed government source indicated Downing Street now acknowledges it is no longer tenable for the prime minister to demand that people await the findings of the survey group.

Blair is expected to adopt the new approach in public today when he faces questions from the cross-party liaison committee of senior backbench members of parliament. During his appearance, and when he takes the lead in a Commons debate on the Hutton report the next day, Blair is expected to acknowledge the need to explain the failure to uncover any banned weapons so far.

A series of factors have persuaded Downing Street to change tack:

-- The White House decision to change its stance on banned weapons, highlighted last week when Bush all but cast himself as an aggrieved member of the public who wants to "know the facts."

-- The admission by David Kay, departing chief of the Iraq survey group, that the US was "almost all wrong" about Iraq's weapons programs.

-- Lord Hutton's finding last week that neither the prime minister, nor anyone else in Downing Street, had "sexed up" the September 2002 arms dossier which was used to justify action against Iraq.

The "not guilty" verdict from Lord Hutton was a crucial factor.

"It is important that we can address these questions without accusations of having falsified the evidence," the senior government source said.

"But it is also valid to point out that the interim report of the Iraqi survey group showed evidence of weapons programs and evidence of concealment. The factual basis has not changed, but the climate has," the source said.

Blair will choose his words carefully because failure to uncover banned weapons represents a greater political threat to him than it does to Bush, who never used Iraq's banned weapons as the main reason for going to war.

The senior government source cautioned last night that the prime minister will not hold up his hands and admit he was wrong when he declared in September 2002, on the day the arms dossier was published, that Iraq's banned weapons program was "active, detailed, and growing."

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