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Blair rejects Kelly leak charge with anger

Hong Kong/London, July 22 (Reuters): British Prime Minister Tony Blair angrily denied suggestions today that he allowed David Kelly’s name to be leaked to media in a row over the Iraq war which apparently drove the scientist to suicide.

As opinion polls showed his personal rating being hammered, Blair told reporters during a flight to Hong Kong he believed he had done nothing wrong.

“Emphatically not. I did not authorise the leaking of the name of David Kelly,” he replied sharply in response to reporters’ questions. “I believe we’ve acted properly throughout,” he added.

Kelly, a government scientist and weapons expert, was found dead in woods near his home last Friday. He had bled to death from a slashed wrist. He had been forced into the media spotlight after telling his defence ministry bosses he may have been the source behind a BBC report which claimed Blair’s government had exaggerated intelligence about banned Iraqi weapons to make a case for war.

The ministry then confirmed Kelly’s identity to journalists who inquired. The BBC, which had consistently refused to name its source, only confirmed Kelly as the source on Sunday, after the scientist’s death. Blair made his case for war against Iraq by saying President Saddam Hussein had to be disarmed of weapons of mass destruction, but months after military action finished none has been found.

The failure to find weapons has already dented Blair’s popularity and undermined his government’s credibility — several ministers have quit since the war saying Blair misled them over the case for action.

An ICM poll in The Guardian newspaper today showed public trust in Blair — once one of the most popular premiers in British history — slumped by 12 points in the past month to 39 per cent. It also showed Blair’s personal approval rating had dropped to minus 17, down from plus seven on the so-called “Baghdad Bounce” after the war.

But despite the fallout, Blair declared he had no regrets about joining Washington in the war.

“It was the right thing to do,” he told a group of Chinese students during a visit to Tsinghua University in Beijing earlier on Tuesday. “I don’t regret it. I’ve no doubt at all that Iraq was trying to develop these weapons.”

Blair’s standing has not been the only casualty of the row.

Currency dealers cited the affair as the pound hit a three-month low against the dollar and a six-week low against the euro yesterday. Sterling had recovered some ground today but the market remained jittery.

Blair’s denial of any involvement in the naming of Kelly appeared to conflict with comments yesterday by his official spokesman, who said the Prime Minister’s office had been consulted about the process which led to Kelly being named, but that the ministry of defence had made the decision.

“We were consulted but the ministry of defence were the lead department and remained the lead department,” he said in London. British newspapers interpreted that as an attempt by Blair’s team to place responsibility for the name leak at defence secretary Geoff Hoon’s door.

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