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Pinocchio punch on Blair nose

London, June 3 (Reuters): British leader Tony Blair flew home from Evian today to face cartoons mocking him as a long-nosed Pinocchio and calls for a probe into allegations he hyped evidence of Iraq’s weapons programmes.

Blair risked his premiership by defying public opinion to send UK troops to war. But Saddam Hussein’s fall had appeared to give him a much-needed “Baghdad Bounce.”

Now he is back in the dock — returning from a foreign tour to taunts from his enemies, genuine public concern, and the possibility of an official probe into claims he exaggerated the threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to justify war.

“In trying to make the case for war, Tony Blair stretched his credibility to the limit and has potentially done serious harm to his own standing and public trust in government,” said Charles Kennedy, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats. “We must now have an independent inquiry by a special Select Committee of the House of Commons to investigate the alleged politicisation of intelligence.”

Even from within his own Labour Party, two former ministers, who both resigned over Iraq, have accused Blair of duping the public and committing a “monumental blunder” by going to war. Fifty legislators from the Labour Party, which was deeply split over Iraq, have signed up to a motion calling on Blair to publish in full his evidence against Saddam. One said the potential scandal was “more serious than Watergate.”

The pressure on Blair, who will face a grilling in parliament tomorrow, has grown with news a US Senate committee will hear America’s case against Saddam.

Already widespread cynicism over UK-US motives for war were fuelled by a BBC report quoting an intelligence source as saying Blair’s Downing Street office made a report “sexier” by adding that Iraq could deploy weapons at 45 minutes’ notice.

Critics are now raking back over pre-war allegations about Iraq’s alleged chemical, biological and nuclear programmes, and its possible links with al Qaida. “Blair must pay for these lies,” screamed one anti-Blair daily under a caricature of him as the lying puppet Pinocchio.

Left-wing writer John Pilger mocked Britain and the US’ “post-war magical mystery hunt for Iraq’s ‘secret’ arsenal” which has so far turned up no concrete evidence. A frustrated Blair has vowed evidence will turn up and called the claims of exaggerating intelligence “totally false.”

His spokesman today said the government did not see the need for a full independent inquiry. But he added that the Joint Intelligence and Security Committee, made of legislators and which reports to Blair, may already be reviewing the case.

Bearing in mind how he survived the pre-war crisis, analysts say Blair is unlikely to face a critical challenge to his power base over the issue, but may lose credibility. “I think he’ll stay but I wonder if his reputation for both trustworthiness and sagacity can really survive this'” politics professor Anthony King, of Essex University, said.

The row has revived an old bete noire Blair hoped he had shaken off — his reputation for political spin. And the political capital he is expending on countering the Iraq accusations may, analysts speculate, also weaken his resolve for a fight on another front - UK entry to the euro.

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