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Blair on Iraq rack as spy chief breaks cover
( 2003-09-16 09:51) (Agencies)

Britain's secretive intelligence chief conceded Monday that criticism of a dossier setting out Prime Minister Tony Blair's case for war with Iraq was valid because its most sensational warning was "misinterpreted."

Breaking with precedent, MI6 head Sir Richard Dearlove testified via audio-link to the judicial inquiry into the suicide of a weapons expert, which has raised questions about Blair's reasons for war and sent his trust ratings plunging.

Dearlove said he stood by the intelligence in the September 2002 dossier but added that a contentious assertion that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons at 45 minutes' notice was only meant to refer to short-range arms.

"Given the misinterpretation placed on the 45-minutes intelligence, with the benefit of hindsight you could say that was valid criticism," said Dearlove, chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), better known as MI6.

"The original (intelligence) report referred ... to battlefield weapons. What subsequently happened in the reporting was it was taken that the 45 minutes applied to weapons of a longer range," he said.

The 45-minute claim was the most dramatic element of the dossier that Blair used to counter widespread public opposition to joining a U.S. war against Saddam Hussein.

Blair's team denies it "sexed up" the dossier on the threat posed by Iraq. But five months after Saddam's overthrow, no banned weapons have been found in Iraq.

Dearlove, his disembodied voice echoing in the courtroom during 40 minutes of testimony, insisted the 45-minutes' claim was "a well-sourced piece of intelligence."

Scientist David Kelly killed himself in July after he was exposed as the source of a BBC report accusing the government of hyping up the case for war to win over skeptical Britons.

Blair's public trust ratings have since evaporated. Although he will not have to testify again, his Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon and outgoing communications chief Alastair Campbell are recalled to be grilled by judge Lord Hutton next week.

Hoon, Kelly's ultimate boss, has been portrayed as a potential fall guy lined up to take the rap and protect Blair.

He faces questions over why he overruled advice to protect Kelly from a hostile public grilling just days before the scientist's death, and why concerns among defense intelligence staff over language in the dossier were not acted on.

Fresh evidence of that concern emerged Monday when the inquiry was shown a letter from the Defense Intelligence Staff, sent just one week before Blair's Iraq dossier was published, saying some of its claims were put too forcefully.

The judgment that Iraq had continued producing chemical and biological weapons was "too strong," the letter said. It also described the 45-minute warning as "rather strong since it is based on a single source."

The government was rocked further at the weekend when a new book claimed that just days before Iraq was invaded, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw begged Blair not to go to war.

Blair's spokesman said Straw was merely outlining a "Plan B" if parliament had voted against war, which it did not. "That is entirely different to expressing policy differences," he said.

But author John Kampfner, an experienced political journalist, said his work was sourced to interviews with 40 key government figures and was confident about its authenticity.

His report follows a revelation last week that Blair ignored warnings from spy chiefs that war would raise the risk of militants like al Qaeda acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

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