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Inquiry into British Weapons Expert's Death Concludes - 2003-09-25

Lawyers in London made their closing statements Thursday at an inquiry into the death of leading British weapons expert Dr. David Kelly, who apparently killed himself. But after 22 days of testimony, 74 witness interviews and thousands of pages of documents, the debate goes on over whether Prime Minister Tony Blair's government exaggerated a key intelligence report last year that propelled the country into war in Iraq.

One of the key areas of the inquiry was the claim that Saddam Hussein's forces in Iraq could launch biological or chemical weapons on 45 minutes' notice. It came from a single intelligence source and was inserted late in the process of drafting the important September 2002 government document outlining Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's communications director queried the specific wording of this point with the special intelligence adviser who authored the report.

It is this interaction that led to a controversial BBC report that alleged that Mr. Blair's office hyped the claim to win support from a skeptical British public and Parliament.

The source of BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan's story was weapons expert David Kelly.

In his closing statement for the government, attorney Jonathan Sumption was stopped by the head of the inquiry and asked about the interaction between Mr. Blair's office and the weapons report author.

Mr. Sumption said it had no effect on the objectivity or substance of the report.

"My Lord, it could not, I would suggest on any view be described, as sexing up [hyping] the dossier," he said. "I have made the broader point that it was, in fact, an entirely proper process."

But the manner in which it was described in Mr. Gilligan's broadcasts bore absolutely no relation to the process which actually occurred.

Meanwhile, the lawyer representing Dr. Kelly's family, Jeremy Gompertz said Mr. Blair's staff used the weapons scientist as part of their strategy to get back at the BBC.

"The principle aims of the family in this inquiry are one, that the duplicity of the government in their handling of Dr. Kelly should be exposed and two, that the systemic failures at the Ministry of Defense should be identified and remedied," he said.

Mr. Gompertz told the inquiry the government was guilty of cynically abusing power.

"The government and the nation have lost their greatest expert in biological weapons of mass destruction. Yet he was characterized by his employers to suit their needs of the hour as a middle-ranking official and used as a pawn in their political battle with the BBC," he said.

The head of the inquiry, Lord Brian Hutton, is expected to deliver his findings in November.

But many politicians are already reacting. Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader says members of parliament might have rejected war in a key House of Commons vote last March if they knew then what they know now.

He is calling for a full independent inquiry into how the government made the case for the conflict.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in a radio interview Thursday that he still hoped that evidence of weapons of mass destruction would be found, although none has yet been uncovered, some five months after major hostilities ended.

Mr. Straw added that he felt that the war was justified then and it is justified now.

Prime Minister Blair's political future hangs in the balance on the inquiry findings. In his testimony, the British leader said he takes full responsibility for what happens inside his government.

His approval ratings have plummeted in opinion polls over recent months. Central to this is a perceived growing lack of trust held for him by the British public.