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Blair sucked into new Iraq dispute

Blair said he did not know 45-minute claim referred to battlefield weapons.
Blair said he did not know 45-minute claim referred to battlefield weapons.

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LONDON, England (Reuters) -- Britain's Tony Blair, who survived an inquiry into a weapons expert's suicide without a scratch, was sucked into a new dispute Thursday over why he went to war in Iraq.

The prime minister has called for an inquiry into British intelligence about banned Iraqi weapons as, nearly 10 months after Saddam Hussein was toppled, none has been found.

In the meantime, his public trust ratings have plunged.

Now, more trouble has blown up after Blair said he did not know, when he won parliamentary backing for war in March last year, that a government claim Saddam could deploy such weapons within 45 minutes referred only to battlefield arms, not long-range missiles which could threaten other states.

Scientist David Kelly killed himself after being revealed as the source for a BBC report that Blair's team highlighted the 45 minutes claim, knowing it was probably wrong.

Surprising many, judge Lord Hutton's subsequent report into Kelly's death absolved the government of all blame.

Opposition Conservatives have seized on Blair's apparent ignorance of the detail and the fact Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon did know the limits of that intelligence.

Conservative leader Michael Howard called on Blair to resign for not getting to the bottom of the government's claims, a demand dismissed by the prime minister's office.

"If I were prime minister and had failed to ask this basic question I would seriously be considering my position," he said.

Hoon, Kelly's ultimate boss, had been tipped to carry the can after Hutton reported but he too was given a clean bill of health.

His respite has proved short-lived.

Testifying at a heated parliamentary committee meeting, Hoon said he had not discussed the precise intelligence details with Blair because it had not then been a major issue.

It only became so only after the BBC's controversial report in May last year. "Since it was not a big issue at the time, it was not a matter we discussed," Hoon told the Defense Committee.

Nearly 140 Labor parliamentarians voted against war but support for Blair from the Conservatives won him the day.

Anti-war Labor MPs say more of their number might have opposed war if they had known the full facts, although Blair did not rely on the 45-minute claim in his key pitch to parliament.

Hoon under fire

Hoon is also under fire because some UK soldiers in Iraq were not equipped with body armor that could have saved lives.

The row has centered on the case of Sgt. Steven Roberts, shot dead near the Iraqi town of Basra on March 23 after being asked to hand in his body armor because it was in short supply.

The Conservatives and Roberts' widow, Samantha, said Hoon should have resigned over that case alone.

Hoon told the committee the invasion had not been hampered by equipment glitches and that the same size of deployment as in the 1991 Gulf War had been achieved in half the time.

But he admitted there were problems. "There were...we know from the tragic case of Sergeant Roberts, problems in providing important equipment enhancements to all personnel," he said.

Hoon also met Thursday with families of six Royal Military Police officers who were killed by a mob in Iraq last June. The army has launched an investigation into their deaths but the relatives are calling for a public inquiry.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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