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UK panel: Iraq dossier didn't overstate
( 2003-09-12 13:37) (Agencies)

The British government did not overstate Saddam Hussein's weapons capability before the Iraq war, but should have stressed that his regime was not an immediate threat to Britain, a parliamentary committee said Thursday.

The panel also said intelligence officials warned Blair that invading Iraq could increase the terrorist threat to the West. It said the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime would improve the chances of terrorist groups obtaining chemical or biological weapons.

The committee said Prime Minister Tony Blair had acknowledged that "there was obviously a danger that in attacking Iraq you ended up provoking the very thing you were trying to avoid."

"On the other hand I think you had to ask the question, could you really, as a result of that fear, leave the possibility that in time this developed into a nexus between terrorism and WMD in an event?" the report quoted Blair as saying. "This is where you've just got to make your judgment and it remains my judgment and I suppose time will tell whether it's true or it's not true."

The Intelligence and Security Committee said the government dossier that outlined Iraq's weapons capability lacked detail about the size of Iraq's illicit arsenal and could have confused the public.

But it cleared Blair's office of claims it deliberately overstated the case for war and ran roughshod over intelligence officials who were concerned parts of the report were faulty. Those allegations sparked a furor that turned into the worst crisis of Blair's six years in power.

It was the second report in as many months to clear the government office of massaging intelligence and a major victory for Blair. Despite criticism of Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, it appeared no one in the government would be forced to resign because of the outcry.

But the government is still under pressure because coalition forces in Iraq haven't found any evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It also faces further investigation when the judicial inquiry into the apparent suicide of weapons adviser David Kelly resumes next week.

The report did say the dossier should have reflected that intelligence chiefs were unsure of the size of Saddam's chemical and biological stockpile. And it criticized the government's presentation of the claim Iraq could launch chemical and biological weapons at 45 minutes' notice.

It said the dossier should have explained the 45-minute claim referred only to short-range artillery rather than long-range missiles.

"We believe that this uncertainty should have been highlighted to give a balanced view of Saddam's chemical and biological capacity," the report said.

The committee also criticized the government for not making it clear that Saddam was not an imminent threat to mainland Britain.

The committee, drawn from both houses of Parliament, also was critical of Hoon and said his ministry had been "unhelpful and potentially misleading" by initially failing to disclose that some of its staff expressed concerns about the dossier.

Government ministers rallied behind Hoon, who told the House of Commons he had been straightforward. "I hope the committee accepts that I did not in fact mislead them," he said.

However, opposition lawmakers pounced on the report.

Hoon "knows he will not survive beyond a few more weeks because he knows he is to be the scapegoat, tethered to the stake until all the sins of this government have been heaped upon him," said Bernard Jenkin, defense spokesman for the main opposition Conservative Party.

Another critic, Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the focus on Hoon should not deflect from the fact that some of the dossier "could have led the public to believe that Iraq posed a greater threat to this country than was actually the case."

The turmoil over the dossier broke in May, after the British Broadcasting Corp. aired a report that claimed the government had "sexed up" the threat posed by Saddam.

Citing an unidentified source, the BBC report said the government had overruled intelligence chiefs and included the 45 minute claim even though it knew it was unreliable and probably wrong.

The BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan, later said his source had blamed Blair's communications chief, Alastair Campbell, for inserting the claim.

The committee rejected Gilligan's charges and said it was satisfied intelligence chiefs had not been pressured by Blair's aides.

"We are content that the JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee) has not been subjected to political pressures and that its independence and impartiality has not been compromised in any way. The dossier was not 'sexed up' by Alastair Campbell or anyone else," the report said.

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, in a report issued July 7, also absolved the government and Campbell. He resigned last month but said the decision was not related to the allegations.

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