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Britain's spy chief to stand down

The headquarters of MI6 by the River Thames in London.
The headquarters of MI6 by the River Thames in London.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The head of the British secret service, MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, is to stand down next year, the UK Foreign Office has announced -- firmly denying a link to the row over intelligence on Iraq.

A spokesman told CNN that Dearlove, 58, would be retiring in August 2004, but strongly rebutted that he was leaving early because of differences with ministers over Iraq.

A report in The Observer newspaper had suggested that Britain's top spymaster has decided to retire early because he is dismayed by "the visible rift between his organization and Downing Street" on intelligence on Iraq.

But a spokesman for the Foreign Office told CNN it was a scheduled retirement and media reports linking the decision to intelligence on Iraq were "entirely fabricated."

The head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6) is known as "C." The post is immortalized in the James Bond novels and films under the barely disguised character of "M."

The Foreign Office spokesman said that when Dearlove goes he would have been in the post for five years -- the normal term of duty for "C."

"Sir Richard Dearlove continues to enjoy the fullest possible confidence of the prime minister, the foreign secretary and the rest of the government on Iraq and all other intelligence issues," the spokesman said.

The announcement comes as an inquiry is under way in Britain into the apparent suicide of weapons expert Dr David Kelly. He was revealed as the source behind a BBC report that the British government had "sexed up" intelligence reports on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction before joining the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein.

The Foreign Office issued a statement confirming Dearlove's decision to go next year after the report in The Observer, saying he had been expected to stay on another two years.

"Sir Richard Dearlove intends to leave is post as planned in August 2004 on completion of his normal tour of office. This is in no way connected to events relating to Iraq," the spokesman said.

"Sir Richard Dearlove was appointed as 'C' in August 1999 for a term of five years. In recent times the normal tenure of service as 'C' has been around five years.

"For example, David Spedding served from 1994 to 1999, Colin McColl from 1988 to 1994, and of their three predecessors no one served longer than five years."

The Observer report said that Dearlove had recently taken the step of appointing a deputy, which it said was being seen as an attempt to groom a successor.

The Foreign Office spokesman told CNN that the decision to appoint an assistant director was not unusual and was a response to an increase in workload for MI6, particularly over Iraq.

The Observer suggested that Downing Street would prefer as Dearlove's successor the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett, who endorsed the government's dossier on Iraqi weapons -- including the controversial claim that some weapons could be deployed within 45 minutes.

According to the paper, Scarlett, a former MI6 officer who served as head of Moscow station, is close to both Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Downing Street communications chief Alastair Campbell.

The Foreign Office spokesman said the choice of a new head for MI6 was a matter for the foreign secretary and the prime minister and would be made nearer to Dearlove's retirement in a year's time.

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