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Blair to appear before unfazed Kelly judge

London, Aug. 1 (Reuters): British Prime Minister Tony Blair will take the rare step of appearing before a judicial inquiry which begins investigating the suicide of Iraq weapons expert David Kelly later this month.

Blair, already suffering a collapse in public trust over his case for war in Iraq, will be grilled by inquiry head Lord Hutton about how Kelly came to be named as the source of a BBC report that Britain exaggerated the weapons threat from Iraq.

In a preliminary hearing today, Hutton insisted he would would not be swayed by either side of an acrimonious stand-off between Britain’s government and its public broadcaster.

“It is I and I alone who will decide what witnesses will be called,” Hutton said after opening the hearing with a minute’s silence for Kelly, a softly-spoken scientist who took his life after finding himself at the heart of the government-BBC row.

“At some stage...I propose to ask the Prime Minister and the secretary of state for defence, Geoff Hoon, to give evidence,” Hutton said.

Blair has already agreed to appear and has even offered to break off his Caribbean holiday, if necessary, to give evidence.

But an inquiry featuring leading government figures, which is expected to drag on for months, will be deeply uncomfortable for him.

Kelly, a former UN weapons inspector and government scientist, became embroiled in the biggest political crisis for Blair’s government in its six-year rule after he gave an off-the-record briefing to the BBC in May.

The BBC used Kelly as its main, anonymous source for an explosive report that the government had hyped the case for war in Iraq by giving undue prominence to intelligence that Saddam Hussein could deploy banned weapons within 45 minutes.

As a heated row between Blair’s office and the public broadcaster blew up, Kelly’s name became public knowledge. He came under intense media scrutiny and was interrogated by a parliamentary committee on July 15.

Three days later his body was found in a field with a slashed wrist. His watch and glasses had been carefully removed, Hutton said. Four electrocardiogram electrode pads were found on his chest — Kelly had a record of coronary artery disease.

Hutton said he had already received material from government about discussions between officials and ministers in the ministry of defence and other departments after Kelly admitted he had talked to the BBC.

“I intend to hear detailed evidence in relation to those discussions,” he said. “On July 9, Kelly’s name came out into the public domain and became known to many journalists. It is my intention to hear evidence as to how and why this came about.”

As well as Blair and Hoon, Hutton said he would also call the Prime Minister’s communications chief Alastair Campbell — who has denied charges that he pressured intelligence services to “sex up” a dossier on the threat posed by Iraq.

The government has said Hutton’s inquiry will focus tightly on events leading up to Kelly’s death. But opposition politicians want a broader remit, looking at the underlying case for Blair’s decision to join the US invasion of Iraq.

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