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British Public, Politicians Question Intelligence Reports on Iraqi Weapons - 2003-06-02

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is defending his decision to go to war against Iraq, in response to critics who say he duped the public about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program.

Pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Blair to prove the existence of Saddam Hussein's weapons program, following a so far futile search for conclusive evidence.

The former British international development secretary, Clare Short, said Mr. Blair misled and deceived parliament in order to meet Washington's timetable for war against Iraq.

"We were duped by the speed, claiming that the stuff was weaponized and might be used in 45 minutes, which was part of the secret commitment to a date, which meant everything had to be hurried along," said Ms. Short.

And the former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, said British intelligence reports about Iraq's chemical and biological weapons programs appear to have been grossly exaggerated.

"What we can, I think, see now, with some certitude, is that it is beginning to look as if the government has committed a monumental blunder," he commented. "And in the real world, governments make mistakes, but what they must never do is to try to deny and cover up these mistakes."

Prime Minister Blair addressed the accusations at a news conference at the Group of Eight summit in France. Mr. Blair says he stands behind the intelligence assessments 100 percent.

"The idea that we doctored intelligence reports in order to invent some notion about a 45 minute capability delivering weapons of mass destruction, the idea that we doctored such intelligence is completely and totally false," replied Mr. Blair.

Prime Minister Blair can expect more questions this week from parliament about the weapons of mass destruction issue. The prime minister has promised to publish new evidence.

But in the meantime, the British public has grown skeptical about the pre-war claims. A new public opinion poll shows only about half the public believe Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction before the war, compared with seven out of 10 people who thought so in February.