London, July 7 (Reuters): British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government did not mislead parliament or doctor evidence to justify the war on Iraq, a parliamentary committee concluded today.
But the report by the foreign affairs committee, which was probing a charge aired on the BBC that officials exaggerated evidence of Iraq’s weapons, gave ammunition to both sides in a flaming row between the government and the public broadcaster.
The feud, which cuts to the heart of the main Anglo-American motive for the war, has damaged Blair’s credibility and popularity, especially given the failure to unearth Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.
Today’s report, however, will not resolve the showdown between the government and the BBC. Both sides said today it had vindicated them.
In May, the BBC cited an anonymous intelligence source as saying Alastair Campbell, Blair’s communications head, had inserted a claim into a dossier last September that Iraq’s weapons could be deployed within just 45 minutes.
The committee said however: “We conclude that Alastair Campbell did not play any role in the inclusion of the 45 minutes claim in the September dossier.”
But that conclusion was only approved on the casting vote of the committee chairman who belongs to the ruling Labour Party. Some Opposition lawmakers on the committee argued there was not enough evidence to clear Campbell of the charge that he “sexed up” intelligence.
“This is simply not proven and, therefore, far too categorical a conclusion to reach,” said Conservative Richard Ottaway.
Blair said the BBC’s charge is a direct attack on his integrity and his government today again demanded an apology. But the broadcaster said the committee’s report had justified its decision to air the original charge.
The government, though, did get its knuckles rapped. The report said it gave undue prominence to the 45-minute claim and “the jury was still out” on the quality of the intelligence.
It also slammed the government over a second dossier published in February which Blair presented to parliament as new intelligence, although part of it had been plagiarised from a student thesis. “The Prime Minister... misrepresented its status,” the report said, but added: “Ministers did not mislead parliament.” Blair will face a grilling over the Iraq dossiers when he appears before a separate parliamentary committee tomorrow.