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Since 1st March, 1999
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Butler clears Blair of cook-up
Relieved PM says no one lied

London, July 14 (Reuters): Prime Minister Tony Blair was cleared today of tricking Britain into invading Iraq but drew heat in a report for relying on deeply flawed pre-war intelligence.

“We found no evidence to question the Prime Minister’s good faith,” Lord Butler said after releasing his report, which damned Britain’s justification for waging war against Baghdad. While Blair placed undue weight on thin intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weaponry, Butler told reporters there was “no deliberate attempt on the part of the government to mislead”.

Blair, whose ratings have tumbled over Iraq but who is still tipped to win re-election next year, reacted with relief. “No one lied, no one made up the intelligence,” he told parliament.

But he added: “I accept full personal responsibility... for any errors that were made.” Political analysts said the Butler report was largely a win for Blair as it cleared him of cooking up intelligence to justify a US-led war that most Britons opposed.

But as with the Iraq-related “Hutton report” earlier this year, the Butler inquiry may be judged as the establishment protecting its own. “Whitewash (Part Two)” was the front-page verdict in Londons Evening Standard daily newspaper.

Blair conceded intelligence about Saddam’s banned arms — the key rationale for last year’s war — looked weaker now than when he defied widespread British Opposition to join US President George W. Bush’s invasion. “It seems increasingly clear that at the time of invasion Saddam did not have stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons ready to deploy,” he added, a stark contrast to his confident pre-war assertions about the threat Saddam posed.

The former civil servant’s findings echoed last week’s US Senate committee report that lambasted American spy services for exaggerating the Iraq threat but found no sign Bush had pressured analysts.

Butler said Iraq “did not have significant — if any — stocks of chemical or biological weapons in a state fit for deployment nor developed plans for using them”.

The government’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) strove to compile a dossier on Iraq’s weaponry in 2002 reflecting available intelligence but was under “strain” in a politically charged climate that compromised their objectivity, he added.

Butler highlighted a “serious failing” in removing warnings and caveats about intelligence that he said was anyway thin.

In future, he said, there should be clearer lines dividing those assessing intelligence and those advocating policy.

In the now notorious September 2002 dossier, Blair said Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes.

No such weapons have been found more than a year after the invasion. “Judgments in the dossier went to — although not beyond — the outer limits of the intelligence available,” the report said.

The 45-minute claim bred suspicions it was there purely for “its eye-catching character”, it added, in a clear indictment of a government criticised for its obsession with media “spin”.

But Butler apportioned no blame for the quality of the intelligence or how it was used. He said John Scarlett, who headed the JIC and has now been promoted to run Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, should not be punished. Analysts said the Butler report would be a relief to Blair.

“This is the best that the Prime Minister and the government could have hoped for. It looks to me as if he has been more or less left out of the circle of blame,” John Benyon, politics professor at the University of Leicester, said.

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