Blair defends govt as protesters shout abuse

The British government’s controversial Iraqi dossier was a response to the “tremendous amount of information and evidence” about Saddam Hussein’s programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction, Prime Minister Tony Blair declared today.

The British government’s controversial Iraqi dossier was a response to the “tremendous amount of information and evidence” about Saddam Hussein’s programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction, Prime Minister Tony Blair declared today.

Giving evidence to the Hutton inquiry into the death of Government weapons expert Dr David Kelly, Mr Blair said that during the course of last year the possibility of war with Iraq prompted a growing public debate and there was “an enormous clamour” to know what intelligence the Government had.

Mr Blair announced on September 3 that a dossier of evidence would be published.

He told the inquiry, at the Royal Courts of Justice in London: “There was a tremendous amount of information and evidence coming across my desk as to weapons of mass destruction and the programmes associated with them that Saddam had.”

He recalled how he discussed the problem with US President George Bush and they decided a decision had to be taken.

“I recall throughout the August break last year literally every day there were stories appearing saying we were going to invade Iraq, that military action had been decided upon,” he told the inquiry.

He added: “We really had to disclose what we knew. People were not unnaturally saying ’produce that intelligence then’.”

Mr Blair told the inquiry: “The aim of the dossier was to disclose our reasons for war and the reasons why we felt this issue had to be informed.”

On September 5 Downing Street communications chief Alastair Campbell chaired a meeting at Downing Street with regard to the dossier.

Mr Blair was asked what discussions he had already completed with Mr Campbell about the dossier.

He said that it was important that it dealt with Iraq and the question of weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Blair said: “After September 11 there was a renewed sense of urgency on the question of rogue states and weapons of mass destruction and links to terrorism.”

Mr Dingemans asked why the dossier had concentrated solely on Iraq.

Mr Blair said: “I think given its history, it was a special case. There was a sense that Iraq fitted a special category.”

Despite repeated denials that the Government “sexed up” the dossier in order to make a more persuasive case for this year’s war, the failure thus far to uncover hard evidence of the WMD programmes detailed in the dossier has undermined the public’s trust in Mr Blair and his government.

As well as answering questions on the dossier, during his appearance this morning Mr Blair was also to face questioning designed to establish the full extent of his role in the process which resulted in Dr Kelly’s name becoming public.

The Hutton Inquiry was set up to investigate how Dr Kelly apparently came to take his own life after being identified as the likely source of a report by BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan, in which the journalist suggested that the dossier was transformed at Downing Street’s behest.

Mr Blair got a noisy reception when he arrived at the Royal Courts of Justice in London for today’s hearing.

A crowd of up to 100 anti-war protesters – more than five times the number who jeered Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon yesterday – were waiting for the Prime Minister.

Many wore Pinocchio-style noses and held up banners accusing Mr Blair of lying.

The crowd screamed abuse as the Prime Minister’s car swept into the High Court complex. They called for him to resign and held up posters of poodles and signs saying “B.LIAR”.

Others held up giant playing cards like those used by the US forces to depict members of Saddam’s regime.

They showed Mr Blair as the ace of clubs, saying: “Tony Blair, aka Bomber Blair, British Prime Minister.”

The intense public interest in today’s hearing was reflected by the sleeping bags lining the streets outside the High Court as people queued through the night to see Mr Blair give evidence.

The line snaked around the building, and was easily the longest seen on any day so far, with one couple even setting up home in a tent.

The first 10 members of the queue were assured places in the main courtroom itself and competition was fierce.

Security was tight for Mr Blair’s appearance. A police helicopter circled overhead and marksmen could be seen on the balconies and rooftops of the High Court.

Mr Blair shunned his usual car in favour of a Range Rover for the journey.

Earlier, Mr Blair received the backing of former Cabinet minister Jack Cunningham, although even he acknowledged that the government machine had not handled the Dr Kelly affair well.

Mr Cunningham argued, though, that Dr Kelly was “the architect of many of his own misfortunes”.

Mr Cunningham told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Like any normal person I think Mr Blair has been quite seriously affected, by first of all a train of unprecedented events, and some of the most serious accusations that any Prime Minister in Government has faced, coming from the BBC, and secondly of course that these events led to the tragic death of Dr Kelly.

“The charge that the Prime Minister’s Office had “sexed up” an intelligence document, we now know from the compelling testament of John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, that there is no substance in that charge at all.

“The second key issue is the role of Dr Kelly in all this, and how that was handled by the government and I think there are some more difficult questions for the Government in respect of that, although I myself don’t believe that it was a viable option that his name could be withheld indefinitely.”

Mr Cunningham added: “As to the handling of Dr Kelly who, I sadly have to say, was the architect of many of his own misfortunes, I think there is certainly significant room for improvement there in the way that has been handled inside the government.”

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