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Blair dodges dossier heat

London, Sept. 4 (Reuters): British Prime Minister Tony Blair dodged searching questions today about an inquiry into the suicide of an Iraq weapons expert whose death has plunged his government into crisis.

Scientist David Kelly killed himself after being exposed as the source of a BBC report that claimed the government had exaggerated the threat from Iraq’s banned weapons to justify war to a sceptical public.

Lord Hutton, chairing the inquiry, closed its first phase today but kept all witnesses on tenterhooks, saying any of them could be recalled, or criticised in his report.

Two intelligence officers told the senior judge yesterday they were unhappy with the strength of language in a now-infamous government dossier on Iraq’s weapons. Evidence has also exposed apparent inconsistencies in statements from top officials and ministers.

Kelly’s death and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — the primary Anglo-American motive for war — have sent Blair’s trust ratings plunging.

At a news conference today, Blair sought to shift the media focus to his government’s domestic agenda but reporters persistently probed him about the Kelly affair. “Let the judge do the judging,” Blair said.

Closing the first phase of his inquiry, Hutton said all the key players could be open to criticism. He will recall some witnesses and take further evidence, starting on September 15.

“Speculation as to whether a certain person may or may not be subject to criticism may well be ill-founded,” he warned.

Blair has said he bears full responsibility for his government but asked if he would be prepared to resign if Hutton criticised his administration, he refused to answer.

Kelly was outed by the ministry of defence as the probable source of the BBC report on Iraq’s banned weapons. His wife, Janice Kelly, told the inquiry this week how he had felt betrayed by his employers and a pyschiatrist said he was probably driven to his death by feelings of public disgrace.

Blair was asked to square evidence he gave to the inquiry with an earlier statement regarding the government’s strategy of naming Kelly as the source of the BBC report.

Days after Kelly’s death, Blair emphatically denied he had authorised the leaking of Kelly’s name to the media. But he told the inquiry, he accepted full responsibility for naming Kelly. Asked how both those statements could be true, he said: “Let the Hutton inquiry make judgements about these things, I could go into a long and detailed answer but I won’t.”

Blair was also grilled about British intelligence officers’ evidence about the September 2002 Iraq dossier.

One official has said there was a tendency to“over-egg” language in some parts of the dossier, a statement that came close to corroborating the claim made in the much-challenged BBC report that the government had“sexed-up” its dossier.

”I could make a response to you but I don't think it's the right thing to do,” Blair said.

Instead, he insisted he did the right thing in going to war and that evidence of banned weapons programmes would be found.

”I've got no doubt at all that they will find evidence that those programmes were continuing well after Iraq was saying they'd been discontinued and shut down,” Blair said.

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