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Blair appeals for calm, to testify in probe

Beijing/London, July 21 (Reuters): Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged to cooperate fully with an inquiry launched today into the suicide of a scientist sucked into a vicious row over Britain’s reasons for waging war on Iraq.

Blair called for a period of calm and respect for the dead man’s family, but his waning popularity has taken a further hit and jitters about a fight between the government and the BBC — which claimed London hyped intelligence on Iraqi weapons to justify war — spread to financial markets.

The Premier said he would testify to judge Lord Hutton, who has been asked to determine what pushed weapons expert David Kelly to slash his wrist last week.

“I will do what the judge in charge of the inquiry wants me to. I shall cooperate fully,” Blair told reporters in Beijing, the latest leg of a southeast Asian tour.

In a statement asserting his independence, Hutton signalled he may range beyond the death to wider aspects of the Iraq war.

Blair justified the war by saying that Saddam Hussein had to be disarmed of banned weapons, but months after military action finished, none have been found.

“It will be for me to decide... the matters which will be the subject of my investigation,” the judge said.

Kelly’s death has left Blair, 50, facing the biggest political crisis of his six-year rule.

But the British Broadcasting Corporation, which has admitted that Kelly was “the principal source” for its bombshell allegation, is in just as deep trouble.

Politicians said the BBC’s acknowledgement called its whole report into question because Kelly had said he did not provide the substance of the report — that a claim that Saddam could launch banned weapons at just 45 minutes’ notice had been overplayed by government officials.

But the government did allow Kelly’s name to become public, throwing him into the glare of the media spotlight.

A YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph newspaper showed 68 per cent of Britons think the government has not been trustworthy over the threat posed by Iraq, while 71 per cent said it was wrong for the government to have named Kelly.

Nearly two-thirds said Blair’s communications chief Alastair Campbell, who has waged a vicious war of words with the BBC, should quit.

Critics now baying for Campbell’s head say he has committed the ultimate sin for a spin doctor — he attracts headlines rather than helping to create them.

“The death of David Kelly has inflicted immense damage on the reputation of a government that already had little reputation left,” said Anthony King, professor of government at Essex University.

Amid the political turmoil, the pound slid to a three-month low versus the dollar and six-week low against the euro.

“Political uncertainty is the main factor for the sterling slide and the market had little choice but to respond to the newspaper headlines,” said Mark Henry, currency strategist at GNI.

Blair has ruled out resigning, but political sources believe Campbell and defence secretary Geoff Hoon might yet do so.

The BBC is accused by some of bending its own standards to inflate a sensational story out of its contact with Kelly.

In parliament last week, Kelly said he could not believe the BBC report came from him but in a statement yesterday, the public broadcaster said it believed it had “accurately interpreted and reported” information from Kelly.

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