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Blair defiant at Iraq inquiry

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start quoteThis was an allegation that we had behaved in a way which ... if true would have merited my resignation.end quote
-- UK Prime Minister Tony Blair
special report
Great Britain
Has Tony Blair's evidence to the Hutton inquiry helped to restore his credibility?

LONDON, England (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has told an inquiry that if a report accusing his government of "sexing up" intelligence on Iraq had been true, it would have merited his resignation.

Blair gave evidence Thursday at a judicial inquiry into the apparent suicide of weapons expert David Kelly at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London.

Kelly was found dead after being named as the main source of a BBC story that said the government exaggerated a dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

The inquiry, which was ordered by Blair, is trying to determine how the government came to expose Kelly -- a move that placed him under intense media pressure and led him to give testimony before two parliamentary committees.

He was found dead near his home by police on July 18. One of his wrists had been slashed.

Referring to the BBC allegation that the Iraq dossier had been exaggerated, Blair said: "This was an absolutely fundamental charge. This was an allegation that we had behaved in a way which ... if true would have merited my resignation."

Blair said a claim by the same BBC reporter in a British newspaper that his communications chief Alastair Campbell had personally "sexed up" the dossier had added "booster rockets" to the allegation.

Blair also told the inquiry, chaired by Lord Hutton, that a claim Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes came from British intelligence.

He said he knew the dossier "had to be a document that was owned by the Joint Intelligence Committee and its chairman John Scarlett."

"At that stage the strategy was not to use the dossier as the immediate reason to go to conflict, but as the reason why we had to return to the issue of Saddam and weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Blair told the inquiry he took responsibility for the decisions by officials that led to Kelly being identified publicly after the scientist told superiors at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) he might be the source for the BBC story.

During two hours and 20 minutes of questioning, Blair said that once Kelly had come forward there was he felt there was "no way" the name could be kept secret.

He said the question then was "how do we then proceed, you cannot conceal this information."

He said there was a discussion and the consensus was that a Cabinet Office official should write to two parliamentary committees, telling them Kelly had come forward.

It was up to the committees to decide whether or not they wanted to interview the scientist, he said.

Asked if he had been concerned about the pressure being placed on Kelly, Blair said: "All I can say was that there was nothing ... that would have alerted us to him being anything other than someone, you know, of a certain robustness who was used to dealing with the interchange between politics and the media.

"Having said that, it is never a pleasant thing, indeed it is a deeply unpleasant thing, for someone to come suddenly into the media spotlight. Certainly we were aware of that.

"It was one of the reasons why we agreed that the press statement should be agreed with Dr. Kelly, but there was in my view no way of keeping this information private."

Protest outside court

About 100 anti-war protesters, some wearing masks with Pinocchio-style noses and holding banners accusing Blair of lying, jeered as the prime minister arrived for Thursday's hearing.

A police helicopter circled overhead and marksmen could be seen on the balconies and rooftops.

Blair said he took full responsibility for decisions that led to Kelly being named.

On Wednesday, defense secretary Geoff Hoon denied there was a "conspiracy" to make Kelly's name public and shifted responsibility for the decision away from the defense ministry to the Cabinet Office, implicating Blair's staff. (Full story)

Nobody is on trial at the inquiry, but Hutton's conclusions could have serious consequences for the government and the BBC.

CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley said that Blair had emerged from the inquiry "relatively comfortably."

"But two-thirds of the public ... believe the government did sex up the dossier, and Tony Blair has got to fight that over a longer period to come," he said. (Full story)

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