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'If it was true, I would have resigned'

( 2003-08-29 14:09) (The Star)

If a BBC report was true that a dossier had been "sexed up" to justify invading Iraq, he would have resigned, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has told an inquiry.

On Thursday Blair testified before a judicial inquiry into the suicide of government scientist David Kelly. He was only the second British premier to be called before such an inquiry.

Blair conceded that his Labour Party administration had issued a controversial dossier last year on the threat from Iraq under intense public pressure to justify going to war.

But he dismissed the BBC report as untrue. Kelly, found dead last month with his wrists slashed, was named as the source of the report. "We described the intelligence in a way that was perfectly justified," Blair said.

Just hours before Blair appeared in a packed courtroom at London's Royal Courts of Justice, gunmen killed a British soldier in southern Iraq. A crowd fired rocket-propelled grenades and guns at a convoy, killing one man and wounding another, the British military said.

The incident brought to 11 the number of British soldiers killed in action since May 1, when major combat was declared over. Sixty-four American soldiers have died from hostile fire over the same period.

Post-war guerrilla attacks and major violence such as last week's bombing of the Unitd Nations office in Baghdad have provoked debate on whether American and its allies have enough troops on the ground with the right training to pacify Iraq.

Blair's public trust ratings have plunged as no sign has emerged of the banned Iraqi weapons which the controversial dossier said Iraq could deploy within 45 minutes.

"The clamour for us to produce evidence was very strong," Blair told the inquiry. "We had to disclose what we knew because there was an enormous clamour. It was important it (the dossier) made the best case we could have."

But the BBC allegation of distorting the facts "if true would have merited my resignation", he added.

Scores of Britons had camped out overnight to see Blair give evidence. As he arrived, anti-war protesters brandished placards styling Blair as a "most wanted" criminal and "B.Liar".

The attack in Iraq came on Wednesday evening when a British convoy from the First Battalion of the King's Own Scottish Borderers passed through the town of Ali Ash Sharqi, about 200km north-west of Basra.

About 30 Iraqis confronted the soldiers, who got out of their vehicles, a spokesperson said. Another crowd closed in from behind.

"The British soldiers fired two warning shots, and the crowd opened fire with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades," the spokesperson said.

"One soldier was fatally wounded and another was seriously wounded in the hand," the spokesperson said. Ten Iraqis were arrested.

US forces patrolling the north-east of Iraq have been facing much more hostility than the British, but British forces patrolling the south have had to face a testing time in recent weeks as well.

France on Thursday called for a change of policy direction in Iraq, with the United States handing security over to a UN-mandated multilateral force and political power to an Iraqi provisional government.

US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said on Wednesday that Washington might accept a UN force if the commander was an American.

With the Bush administration signalling for the first time it might agree to a UN-sponsored multinational force, diplomats said the United States and Britain intend to explore a new UN resolution to encourage nations to send troops.

"You may well start to see ideas on paper next week," said one UN diplomat in New York.

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