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Iraq factor: Blair's 34 words

By Robin Oakley
CNN European Political Editor

Blair's support for Bush over Iraq is haunting the British prime minister's campaign for re-election.
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Iraq war puts the trust in Blair to the test as election approaches. CNN's Robin Oakley reports
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- In the run-up to the war in Iraq, British intelligence agents worked to find out what weapons Saddam Hussein may or may not have had.

Much of that intelligence found its way to 10 Downing Street and the desk of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Exactly what it said or did not say we'll probably never know.

But in the run-up to war, Blair was keen to get public support onto his side. So he decided to share some of that intelligence with the public in a document now known commonly as the dodgy dossier.

The prime minister continued sharing intelligence with members of parliament, where he spoke 34 words in September 2002 that could now come back to haunt him:

"Iraq has chemical and biological weapons. Saddam has continued to produce them. He has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons which could be activated within 45 minutes."

Those 34 words alleging that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction illustrate Blair's main justification for war. But as we now know, the intelligence on Iraq's weapons was wrong. No evidence could be found that Saddam had WMD in the run-up to war.

If Blair loses the election or scrapes back into power with a significantly reduced majority, much of the blame will fall on those 34 words. And while official inquires cleared the prime minister of deliberate deceit, they still pinned some blame on him.

"Language in the dossier and used by the prime minister may have left readers with the impression that there was fuller and firmer intelligence than was the case. It was a serious weakness," inquiry chairman Lord Robin Butler said last July.

At Labour's glitzy manifesto launch, Iraq was not a subject Blair wanted to push to the head of the queue. There's no wonder. Opinion polls show that two-thirds of the voters don't trust him. But luckily for the prime minister, his decision to go to war was supported by Britain's opposition Conservatives.

That hasn't stopped their leader, Michael Howard, from continually raising the question about whether Blair can be trusted.

"Why should people ever believe a word he says again," Howard has said.

And it's not just his opponents who worry Blair. Thousands of people, many of them traditional Labour supporters, demonstrated on the streets of London against the war. Even some of Blair's own party members fear the Iraq factor would see many potential Labour supporters refuse to back the party this time.

"That's the millstone around Labour's neck," said MP Alan Simpson.

One party that opposed the war was the Liberal Democrats. At the last election, they picked up seats from the Tories. This time Labour is in their sights on Iraq and domestic issues.

"The Labour Party is very, very much weaker," said Lord Chris Rennard of the Liberal Democrats.

"I think as a result of the Iraq war and the claims of weapons of mass destruction and the unpopularity of things like student top-up fees, the Lib Dems are now also very well placed to gain from Labour."

Few British people are expected to cast their votes directly on the Iraq issue. But all parties accept there is an Iraq factor, and none of them knows exactly how it will play out.

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