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Blair Exonerated but Hurt Again by Report on Iraq WMD Intelligence

Once again British Prime Minister Tony Blair was questioned over the war with Iraq; once again he escaped from charges that he had exaggerated his case so as to take the nation to war; but once again he was deeply damaged and failed to get rid of the long shadow of Iraq.


Lord Butler published his long-waited inquiry report Wednesday, concluding that part of the British intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were "seriously flawed" although no evidence of "deliberate distortion or culpable negligence" has been found.


Saddam "did not have significant, if any, stocks of chemical or biological weapons in a state it for deployment or developed plans for using them," the report said, contradicting a central claim made by Blair in the run-up to the war that Iraq possessed WMD and posed a "serious and current" threat to the West.


Lord Butler explained that the contradiction came out of a mistake but not a lie. But here came a question immediately: How could Blair follow the United States to launch the war with Iraq on such a false premise?


Even it is not a matter of Blair's honesty and truthfulness, it is absolutely a matter of his competence of making proper judgment and therefore of his qualification to lead a country, many local analysts agree.


"The prime minister has said mistakes were made and he accepts responsibility, but it is not a question of responsibility but credibility," said main opposition Tories leader Michael Howard in response to Blair's statement made one hour after Butler's report was issued.


Meanwhile, second opposition Liberal Democrats leader Charles Kennedy said the narrow remit of the Butler inquiry left key questions unanswered, calling for a new inquiry into the legality of the war and the publication of the attorney general's concerned advice.


Blair has seen his popularity plummeted since the Iraq war last year and it is unlikely that the Butler report will help Blair off the hook on "this most damaging of his leadership crises", local media said.


Blair recently succeeded in getting back the public's attention to domestic issues. The last three weekly prime minister's questions times in the House of Commons have all been about public services.


But the publication of the Butler report reopened the Iraq issue again. It is now expected that resignation calls could once again return to haunt him, especially if his ruling Labor Party were to lose one or both crucial by-elections in the currently Labor-held seats of Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South on Thursday.


The by-elections would prove what the local elections in June 10 already suggested: the Labor Party pays a heavy electoral price for the "shadow" cast by the war with Iraq, the local media predicted.


After all that, it is expected that there will be a small-scale ministerial reshuffle to take place possibly over this weekend.


Local analysts also list three factors threatening to trigger Blair's departure this year: if he became detested by the public generally and his party in particular; if Iraq descended into complete and utter turmoil; and if there was any suggestion that he was "in office but not in power".


The leadership question is visibly interfering with Labor's ability to govern, Jonathan Freedland, a commentator with the Guardian newspaper, warned Wednesday.


Tom Baldwin and Philip Webster, both with The Times newspaper, say that the timing may be more crucial -- if Blair has not stepped down by the end of July it will be too late for the Labor Party to change its leader before the next general election, expected mid next year.


As having been predicted, this week proved a "difficult and testing time" for Blair but not to be his worst yet. But the question remains: How many more of these tough weeks can Blair endure?


Moreover, a certain thing seems to have been assured: no matter how successful Blair could be in winning the voters' attention back to the domestic issues, he will still be tortured by his decision to go to war with Iraq if he fights the next election.


(Xinhua News Agency July 15, 2004)



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