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Blair's chief of staff faces Iraq inquiry
( 2003-08-18 10:04) (Agencies)

Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief of staff faces a grilling on Monday over British government claims about Iraq's weapons threat when he takes the stand at an inquiry into the suicide of bio-warfare expert David Kelly.

Jonathan Powell, one of Blair's closest advisers, will also be asked about Downing Street's role in handling Kelly after he was identified as the suspected source of a BBC report that Britain exaggerated the danger from Iraq.

Doubts over Blair's justification for war with Iraq and the suicide of the respected scientist have plunged the prime minister into the worst crisis of his six-year rule.

Kelly, a former U.N. inspector and an authority on Iraq's biological and chemical weapons programs, slashed his wrist after being forced to testify in public about his contacts with reporters in which he cast doubt on Blair's pre-war claims.

The inquiry into his death has already heard that the scientist's concerns were echoed by two senior defense intelligence experts who questioned allegations made in a September 2002 dossier on Iraqi weapons.

But none of the witnesses produced evidence to support a BBC journalist's report that Blair's communications chief Alastair Campbell played up a claim that Iraq could unleash banned weapons at 45 minutes notice, knowing it was probably wrong.

The government's angry denial that it "sexed up" a pre-war dossier on Iraq's weapons to justify a war most Britons opposed, led to the mild-mannered Kelly being thrust into the limelight.

Campbell himself will give evidence to the inquiry, led by senior judge Lord Hutton, on Tuesday.

Blair's trust ratings have plunged as no banned weapons have been found in Iraq, four months after Saddam Hussein was toppled. A poll last week showed 68 percent of the public think the government was dishonest about the war and 41 percent blamed it for Kelly's death.

Blair, currently on holiday in Barbados, will return to testify to Lord Hutton's inquiry. Defense Minister Geoff Hoon will also give evidence.

Documents shown to the inquiry on Thursday revealed that Hoon overruled advice from his most senior civil servant who advised him to reject a request from parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee for Kelly to appear before them.

The adviser said Kelly was not used to being thrown into the public eye and was "not on trial." Hoon overruled him and told Kelly to testify.

The scientist, looking deeply uncomfortable in the public spotlight, appeared before the committee on July 15. Two days later he cut his wrist in a quiet woodland site near his home.

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