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Blair defends handling of intelligence on Saddam
LONDON -- Facing growing public distrust, Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted Tuesday he was right to go to war to depose Saddam Hussein and said weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq.
Blair defended his government's use of intelligence material and dismissed concerns he had overplayed the threat posed by Saddam, a day after a parliamentary committee questioned the reliability of two key dossiers.
"You would almost think that this question about Saddam and weapons of mass destruction was somehow invented by the CIA and British intelligence. There is no doubt that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction," Blair said during a two-and-a-half hour grilling by lawmakers.
'We did the right thing'
"I am quite sure we did the right thing in removing Saddam Hussein because not merely was he a threat to his region, to the wider world, but it was an appalling regime that the world is well rid of."
Unease about the government's case for war in Iraq has been bubbling for weeks among lawmakers and in the British press -- fueled by the failure to unearth any illicit weapons.
Two intelligence documents, published in September and January, have also drawn fire.
The House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee ruled Monday that the January document had undermined the government's case for war because it contained material plagiarized from a 12-year-old graduate thesis found on the Internet.
The September dossier, the committee said, had given undue prominence to an uncorroborated claim Saddam's troops could deploy chemical and biological weapons at 45 minutes' notice. It also contained an incorrect claim that Iraq had recently sought significant quantities of uranium in Niger.
The committee did not accuse Blair or his ministers of misleading Parliament, however. They also cleared Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's communications chief, of inserting the 45-minute claim against the wishes of security chiefs.
The furor has damaged the government's reputation. According to a poll published by The Times newspaper, 54 percent of respondents said they would not trust Blair "further than I could throw him."
That compared with 40 percent of respondents who did not trust Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith and 32 percent who distrusted Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.
According to the Populus poll, which interviewed 1,000 adults by telephone between July 4 and 6, the number of people who thought military action was justified had slipped from 64 percent in April to 47 percent. No margin of error was given for the poll.
Blair came out fighting Tuesday during one of his regular appearances before the House of Commons Liaison Committee.
"I refute any suggestion that we misled Parliament or the people," he said, before turning to the coalition's successes in Iraq since the end of the war -- police had returned to the streets, schools were open, infrastructure contracts were being awarded and oil refineries were working.
Opposition lawmakers were unimpressed.
"The only way Tony Blair can now restore trust and credibility in the way that the government presents intelligence information is to agree to a full, independent judicial inquiry," said Conservative foreign affairs spokesman Michael Ancram.
"Mr. Blair should wake up to the fact that this is a serious matter, end his cavalier approach and apologize to Parliament and the British people."