London, July 20 (Reuters): British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced reforms to government and spy agencies today to try to quell a furore over a damning report into flawed intelligence on Iraqi weapons.
But Blair, whose public trust ratings have plunged in the war’s aftermath, was again forced to defend himself against the charge he duped parliament and the country over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction —the primary reason he gave for war.
“The intelligence really left little doubt about Saddam (Hussein) and weapons of mass destruction,” Blair said in a final debate on Iraq before parliament breaks for summer on Thursday. “I don’t accept it was a mistake to go to war. I think it was the right thing to do. I still believe it was the right thing to do,” he added.
Blair had hoped to draw a line under the Iraq debacle with the report on intelligence, published last week by former civil servant Lord Butler.
Instead, Butler’s findings have revived the row over the US-led conflict and given Blair’s critics fresh ammunition to question his credibility — an issue they hope will feature prominently in next year’s expected general election.
Blair’s Labour Party has suffered a string of embarrassing electoral losses in past months, partly due to an Iraq backlash. Opinion polls put him on track to lead Labour to a third general election victory but his trust ratings continue to suffer.
Butler cleared Blair of distorting spies’ assessments on Iraq but exposed faulty intelligence. He criticised Blair’s informal style of government and its closeness to secret agents.
In response, Blair said in any future document, like a now notorious September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s weapons, intelligence would be presented separately from the political case.
He also signalled a change to the informal meetings he held with senior ministers, intelligence chiefs and officials in the run-up to war — excluding his whole cabinet of senior ministers. “In any future situation, such a group ... would operate formally as an ad hoc committee of cabinet,” he said.
The Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, has appointed a senior officer to work through Butler's recommendations, Blair said. Those steps failed to silence his critics. “Intelligence was sporadic, patchy, little and limited. Why did the Prime Minister say it was extensive, detailed and authoritative'” asked Michael Howard, leader of the Opposition Conservative Party, which supported the war. “The country was given a misleading impression of what the intelligence services said,” Howard added. But Howard’s own credibility came under attack after he said he would not have backed the war in a crucial vote in March 2003 if he had known then what he knows now about intelligence. He spent much of the debate explaining his position.
Filipino hostage freed
A Filipino truck driver held hostage in Iraq for two weeks was freed unhurt today, a day after Manila withdrew its troops in response to demands from kidnappers. The kidnappers of Angelo de la Cruz dropped him at the UAE embassy in Baghdad this morning.
He was taken to the Philippine embassy, where he looked tired and occasionally brushed away tears.