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Main British Opposition Party Withdraws from Iraq Intelligence Probe - 2004-03-01

In a major blow to Prime Minister Tony Blair, Britain's main opposition party has pulled-out of a new inquiry examining the country's pre-war intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

The withdrawal by the Conservative Party from the inquiry panel means only members of Tony Blair's ruling Labor Party will be on it. Liberal Democrats, Britain's third largest party, refused to join at the outset.

Conservative leader Michael Howard met with the prime minister last month. At that time Mr. Howard said he was satisfied that the inquiry, chaired by Robin Butler, would consider all aspect of intelligence gathering and intelligence evaluation. He also said the inquiry would examine how that intelligence was used by government.

But Mr. Howard now said he changed his mind following last week's disclosure that the panel will focus only on systems and structures, rather than the actions of individuals. "It has now become clear that Lord Butler is interpreting those terms of reference in a very narrow way, a way which I do not think is justified at all and that is why I am withdrawing my support," he said.

As recent polls indicate, the British public wants to know why Britain went to war in Iraq. Mr. Howard said the inquiry will not answer that question.

Despite calls from prominent politicians, including former Prime Minister John Major, Mr. Blair's government refused to consider releasing the full legal advice given by the Attorney General about the legality of going to war.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said a condensed summary of the legal advice was already made public and releasing the document in full would go against the principles of confidentiality of government decision-making. "That was fully set out by the Attorney General in a statement which he made to the House of Lords. But in addition, in a five-page letter which I wrote to the chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee at the time and which I commend to you," he said.

Meanwhile, the calls for the establishment of yet another inquiry into the political aspects of how British intelligence was used continue to grow.