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British Officials Questioned on Iraq Weapons - 2003-09-22

In London on Monday, two major figures in Prime Minister Tony Blair's government faced a grilling at the inquest into the death of leading British weapons expert David Kelly. Mr. Blair's outgoing communications director and his defense secretary were both called to give evidence for a second time. The inquiry has expanded to cover several aspects of the government's handling of the Iraq crisis.

Under intense cross-examination, the prime minister's chief spokesman, Alastair Campbell, told the inquest that suggestions he made to a senior intelligence adviser about the wording of a key government report last year were merely that, suggestions. Mr. Campbell said he did not think his comments would affect the objectivity of the report's author.

Mr. Campbell, who is leaving his post as Mr. Blair's communications director, said his aim was clarity. One of the points Mr. Campbell raised in the days before the September 2002 document was published had to do with the claim that Iraq could deploy some weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.

He said his question was intended to clear up what he thought was an inconsistency in the report, and was not a request for a change.

It is the exact wording of that claim, which is at the center of the storm currently engulfing Mr. Blair's government. The document, and that claim in particular, played a significant role in gaining support for the war in the British parliament.

One key question for the inquiry is whether Mr. Campbell exerted any influence to raise the prominence of the 45-minute claim, beyond what intelligence experts felt was justified.

Nearly five months after the war ended, no weapons of mass destruction have been found. And the prime minister's ratings in public opinion polls have plummeted in recent months.

Earlier on Monday, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told the inquiry that newspapers were to blame for exaggerating the 45-minute claim. He said he did not know why the government had not tried to put out a statement correcting what he called false impressions in the media, but he added that it was not his duty to correct such reports.

Mr. Hoon's job is widely seen here as in jeopardy, depending on the results of the inquiry.

At Monday's session, he insisted he felt the government had done nothing wrong in its handling of weapons expert David Kelly. The defense secretary repeatedly denied leaking the weapons scientist's name to the media, but he did confirm the he was aware of the decision in his department to authorize press officers to confirm Mr. Kelly's name, if it was put to them by journalists.

The BBC has confirmed that Mr. Kelly was the main source of a story it broadcast saying the government had exaggerated the Iraqi threat. Mr. Kelly died of apparently self-inflicted wounds, after he was called before a parliamentary committee, where he faced tough questioning about his views on the report, and his decision to speak about it to the BBC.

The Hutton Inquiry is scheduled to complete its hearings at the end of this week, and to present its findings in November.