Thursday, July 15, 2004

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair escaped harsh criticism in an official inquiry into prewar intelligence on Iraq, which faulted him yesterday for informal decision-making and pushing available intelligence to the limit, but found no deliberate distortions.

Mr. Blair said he took full, personal responsibility. But after the much-awaited report was released, he told Parliament, “No one lied, no one made up the intelligence.”

The commission — headed by Robin Butler, a retired civil service chief — found prewar Iraq had no usable stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and that British intelligence was flawed, unreliable and incomplete. The five-member commission interviewed Mr. Blair, senior Cabinet figures and key intelligence officials.

Although the report criticized Mr. Blair’s “informal” governing style, it absolved him of misleading the public over Iraq, a charge that has dogged the prime minister since he took Britain into the U.S.-led war.

Protesters — including some who wore masks depicting Mr. Blair with a Pinocchio-like long nose — greeted the announcement by gathering outside the press conference where the report was released and carrying signs that featured Mr. Blair’s face and read: B.liar.

Mr. Butler’s judgment vindicates the British government of some of the harshest charges against it, a week after a Republican-led U.S. Senate committee excoriated a “broken corporate culture” at the CIA and said there had been a “global intelligence failure” on Iraq.

The verdict takes some pressure off Mr. Blair, whose popularity and credibility have been battered by the war and continuing violence in Iraq, and by the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction.

His Labor Party did poorly in recent elections, and there have been rumblings within the party calling for his ouster.

Mr. Blair’s future has wider symbolic and political ramifications months after a pro-war government was voted out in Spain, and with President Bush — Mr. Blair’s chief ally — facing a re-election campaign.

“We have no reason, found no evidence, to question the prime minister’s good faith,” Mr. Butler told reporters.

He concluded “no single individual” was responsible for intelligence failures that led Mr. Blair’s government to overstate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

Before the war, Mr. Blair said Saddam “has chemical and biological weapons … [and] existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

Addressing the House of Commons yesterday, however, he acknowledged it was likely Saddam “did not have stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons ready to deploy.”

But Mr. Blair defended his decision to go to war.

“I cannot honestly say I believe getting rid of Saddam was a mistake at all,” he said. “Iraq, the region, the wider world is a better and safer place without Saddam.”

Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, an opponent of the war, said the report showed “we committed British troops to action on the basis of false intelligence, overheated analysis and unreliable sources.”

The report was the latest to exonerate the Blair government. Three previous inquiries also cleared officials of misusing intelligence or lying.

The government was accused in a May 2003 British Broadcasting Corp. report of falsely claiming that Iraq could deploy some chemical and biological weapons on 45 minutes’ notice.

Mr. Butler said the 45-minute claim was the weakest piece of intelligence published about Iraq, and should not have been made without explaining that it referred to battlefield munitions rather than missiles.

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