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Britain battles CIA rift reports

London, July 13 (Reuters): Britain tried to brush off reports today of a serious rift with Washington over its intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions used by the two allies to justify invading Iraq.

The US, which toppled Saddam with British support three months ago, said last week its claim that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger was based on forged documents.

That embarrassing retreat left Prime Minister Tony Blair, already under fire from domestic critics and former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, increasingly isolated as he refused to withdraw Britain’s charge that Saddam sought uranium in Africa.

Foreign secretary Jack Straw said in a letter published yesterday Britain stood by intelligence it had seen — but not passed on to its chief ally — supporting the Niger link and said US doubts had been “unsupported by explanation”.

His comments triggered speculation of a split between the CIA and Britain’s intelligence service, known as MI6, which have traditionally cooperated closely.

“All this stuff about rifts and rows just doesn’t hold water,” a spokesperson for Blair said, insisting that the CIA had not called into question the intelligence Britain had relied on.

Blair flies to Washington on Thursday for talks with President George W. Bush, leaving behind calls from a former minister for his resignation and a growing sense of betrayal within his ruling Labour Party, which grudgingly backed the war.

Both Blair and Bush have faced accusations that they manipulated intelligence about weapons of mass destruction to make the case for military action. Three months after Saddam’s downfall, no evidence of such weapons have been found in Iraq.

Former foreign minister Robin Cook, who resigned as Blair’s leader in parliament on the eve of the Iraq war, urged the government today to publish its evidence supporting the African uranium allegations.

“Why did their evidence not convince the CIA'” Cook told the Independent today. “If it was not good enough to be in the President’s address, it was not good enough to go in the Prime Minister’s dossier.”

Blair’s government had included the charge that Saddam sought uranium from Niger in a September 2002 dossier setting out the case for military action.

Bush mentioned it in a January speech but the White House now says the claim was based on forgeries.

Another of Blair’s vocal critics, former aid minister Clare Short, said he should resign before the criticism damaged Labour’s re-election prospects. “The best solution for Tony would be if he planned to move on before it gets ever nastier,” she told GMTV.

Blix delivered the latest blow to Blair today, declaring in a newspaper interview that Britain committed a “fundamental mistake” when it said Saddam could deploy weapons of mass destruction at 45 minutes notice.

“It seems to me highly unlikely that there were any means of delivering biological or chemical weapons within 45 minutes,” Blix told the Independent on Sunday newspaper.

“That seems pretty far off the mark to me,” Blix added in the interview.

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