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Top Blair Aide Denies Role in Iraq Weapons Claim - 2003-08-19

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief aide took the stand Tuesday in the parliamentary inquest into the death of a leading British weapons expert, Dr. David Kelly. The questioning of senior adviser Alastair Campbell cut to the heart of how Mr. Blair's government operated in the key days and weeks before the release of a document last September. The document detailed the alleged extent and threat of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

In testimony before the Hutton inquiry, the prime minister's communications chief, Alastair Campbell, insisted that he had no influence over the inclusion of a key claim in the document that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction on 45 minutes' notice.

It is that claim which has proven to be problematic to Mr. Blair's government as he tried to persuade a skeptical country and Parliament that waging war in Iraq was the right course of action.

In testimony Tuesday, Mr. Campbell reiterated that his press office did not exaggerate the wording of the report in any way to make the case for war.

He insisted that intelligence chiefs were in complete charge of preparing the report.

It has been disclosed that Alastair Campbell chaired a meeting with the prime minister and British intelligence bosses a week before what he says was the first time he saw the 45-minute claim in the draft document, a report written by the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Mr. Campbell's evidence is seen as crucial in building a picture of the events leading up to the apparent suicide of Dr. Kelly near his home last month.

Mr. Campbell said Prime Minister Blair wanted the public to realize what he described as Iraq's unique threat.

But in an e-mail dated a week before the publication of the report, Mr. Blair's chief of staff wrote that the document did not demonstrate that Saddam has the motive to attack his neighbors, let alone the West.

While the inquiry probes the inner working and thinking of his government during this critical time, Tony Blair himself remained away from London, on vacation in the Caribbean, and his personal trust ratings continue to plummet in public opinion polls.