London, July 14 (Reuters): Claims British Prime Minister Tony Blair made about banned Iraqi weapons continued to haunt him today as a new poll published shortly before he visits the US showed most Britons think he misled them.
Blair flies on Thursday to Washington — where his stock remains high — and then on for a week-long tour of southeast Asia with questions about his justification for taking part in the US-led war in Iraq bombarding him from all sides.
At home, the Premier has faced accusations that he overplayed intelligence about weapons of mass destruction to make the case for war. With no such weapons found months after the conflict ended, he is starting to suffer political damage.
A poll by ICM for the Daily Mirror newspaper today showed 66 per cent of those questioned believed Blair had misled them — either knowingly or unknowingly — before he sent troops into action in Iraq.
Blair struck a defiant note at a news conference closing a summit of 14 Centre-Left world leaders outside London.
“We should be proud Saddam has gone, glad that he’s gone... The world will be a more secure place as a result,” he said.
The British government was forced today to defend its claim that Iraq sought uranium from Niger to support a nuclear weapons programme, although Washington has abandoned the charge.
The White House said last week its claim was based on forged documents, a potentially embarrassing schism as Blair prepares to meet President George W. Bush, who included the allegation in a January speech, citing British findings.
Britain included the accusation in a September 2002 dossier setting out the case for war in Iraq. “We stand entirely by the intelligence we gave and shared with the public,” Blair said.
Foreign secretary Jack Straw tried to paper over the cracks, saying Britain had received intelligence from a third country about Niger’s uranium that the Americans had not seen. “This information on which we relied, which was completely separate from the now notorious forged documents, came from foreign intelligence sources,” Straw told BBC Radio.
“We believe in the veracity of the intelligence.”
But that is only one of many questions posed about Iraq’s banned weapons and what Blair said about them before the war.
Former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix delivered the latest blow yesterday, declaring that Britain committed a “fundamental mistake” when it said Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction at 45 minutes notice.
In Washington, Blair will address a special joint session of Congress but the trip goes far beyond ceremonial.
As well as Iraq, the two leaders are expected to discuss British terror suspects being held by US forces at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — another potential diplomatic flashpoint.