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Britain's Blair Faces Credibility Challenge on Phantom Iraqi Weapons

British Prime Minister Tony Blair endured a lot of criticism when he led a reluctant Britain into the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Now, parliament has launched an inquiry into his handling of intelligence information that helped justify the war.

Perhaps the greatest challenge currently facing Tony Blair is the question of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. Prime Minister Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush said Iraq's weapons program was the main justification for military action. Now, more than two months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, many members of the British parliament are asking where the weapons are.

The war was controversial in Britain from the start, with public opinion polls running consistently against it and Mr. Blair's own Labor party sharply split. Two ministers in Mr. Blair's cabinet resigned over the war.

The questions about the weapons of mass destruction have renewed the controversy. Many people say with no such weapons found so far, Mr. Blair's credibility has been damaged, even among many members of his own party.

Labor Party Member of Parliament Jeremy Corbyn is among Mr. Blair's most outspoken critics. "He has seriously alienated a very large number of members of parliament," said Mr. Corbyn, "not so much those who were opposed to the war from the beginning ... but those that were convinced by him on the day of the parliamentary vote itself that his argument about weapons of mass destruction was correct and was a valid argument. They duly voted in support of his strategy. They are the ones who now feel very, very let down and very, very angry."

Mr. Corbyn also said the prime minister's policies, and particularly his close relationship with the U.S. administration, run counter to what he sees as the fundamental ideology of the Labor party.

"He has blindly followed a very right-wing American administration, which seems to be spending incredible amounts of money on arms and weapons and not enough energy in addressing serious social and political injustices that exist around the world," complained Mr. Corbyn. "And many of us feel the function of the Labor government is to be an independent force politically in the world, but also to be a force for social good, and what we've now got involved with is two wars alongside the United States."

But Mr. Blair's supporters say such issues are being raised by a small but vocal group of Labor Party members who want to take the party in a new direction. Among the prime minister's supporters is Labor Party Member of Parliament Donald Anderson. "He took a clear strategic decision at any early stage to ally himself with the U.S.," said Mr. Anderson, "and clearly those groups opposed him and some are regrouping now over the questions of weapons of mass destruction and whether or not he exaggerated the evidence. On the evidence which was available to me, which did not cover the whole canvas, I felt that the prime minister had acted accurately, represented the intelligence evidence which was available to him."

Some experts have suggested that the divisions in the Labor Party could end Mr. Blair's tenure as party leader. But Donald Anderson says the party needs to stick with the man who has led it to two election victories.

"I think the majority of the members of the Labor Party recognize that he is someone who is likely to lead us to victory again in the third election and that excessive internal divisions are fatal for the party's ultimate election chances," said Mr. Anderson.

Professor Glen Rangwala, an expert on Britain's foreign relations at the University of Cambridge, agrees that Mr. Blair's position as Labor leader is secure. But Mr. Rangwala said the prime minister's credibility has been damaged.

"If, for example, we see Tony Blair making allegations about, say, how Iran's nonconventional weapons program is developing, which may be plausible," said Prof. Rangwala. "I'm not sure he's really going to be believed by anybody anymore either in the public or amongst his own party. He doesn't have the authority anymore to speak about these sorts of things without people automatically raising the Iraq example as one way in which they believe at least they were misled."

Mr. Blair's relationships within the European community have also been affected by his support for the Iraq war.

In many ways, the war served to deepen the divide between Britain and some major European powers, including France and Germany. Britain already disagrees with those nations over such issues as the European Constitution and the adoption of a single European foreign policy.

"There is that sense to which Britain has somewhat become marginalized within the European project," said Mr. Rangwala. "However, that said, that may be a temporary thing. There are many different people, especially amongst European heads of state who are trying to reconcile now with Britain, who realize now that it's going to be very difficult to take forward political progress in the European Union without building bridges again with Britain. And to some extent, we've seen that take place in the last few weeks."

Professor Rangwala said the war in Iraq has been damaging to Prime Minister Blair domestically and in his relations with some European allies, but he says it was probably not politically fatal.