| British Prime Minister Tony Blair (right) talks to a patient during a visit to King’s College Hospital in south London on Tuesday. (AFP)
London, Sept. 23 (Reuters): The British intelligence chief responsible for a pre-war dossier on Iraq’s weapons dropped a key sentence from it days before publication after prompting from Downing Street, an inquiry heard today.
He did it at the suggestion of Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair, the inquiry heard. The offending sentence stated that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was prepared to use chemical and biological weapons “if he believes his regime is under threat”.”
Powell argued that phrase suggested Iraq was only a threat if attacked. The revelation that Powell ordered the sentence to be omitted raises fresh doubts over the intervention of Blair’s office in the compilation of the September dossier.
The justification Blair gave for war — Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — has come under intense scrutiny at the inquiry into the suicide of Iraq weapons expert David Kelly.
Kelly killed himself in July shortly after being named as the source of a BBC radio report that claimed the dossier had been “sexed up” at the last minute at the behest of Blair’s Downing Street office. His death and the inquiry has plunged Blair into the worst political crisis of his six-year tenure.
In an e-mail to John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Powell noted that the sentence “backs up the argument that there is no CBW (chemical, biological weapons) threat and we will only create one if we attack him. I think you should redraft that para.” Scarlett agreed to the change to what would have been the dossier’s final draft before publication.
“We were prompted to look again at this by the (Powell’s) memorandum,” Scarlett conceded. But under tough cross-examination, he rejected the suggestion made by counsel to the BBC that Downing Street’s “intervention” forced the change.
“It was not as a result of the intervention from Downing Street. It was a result of the exercise of my professional judgment,” Scarlett said, adding that the change was made in line with intelligence received.
Scarlett’s evidence will do little to boost the public’s trust in Blair over the Iraq war. A Guardian/ICM poll today showed that now only 38 per cent of the British public believe it was right to invade Iraq.
Lord Hutton, chairing the inquiry, has said no one is immune from criticism in his final report, in which he is expected to look at how Kelly was treated by the ministry of defence and the government and the wider case Blair made for war.
Defence secretary Geoff Hoon is seen by the British media as the most likely government “fall guy” over the Kelly affair. He admitted yesterday that he had approved a strategy by which his ministry would confirm Kelly’s identity to any journalist who offered the correct name.
Kelly’s wife told the inquiry her husband felt let down and betrayed by his superiors and described his distress at being thrust into the limelight.