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Blair to Testify in Judicial Inquiry on Death of Weapons Expert - 2003-08-01

British Prime Minister Tony Blair will be called to testify before a judicial inquiry into the death of a scientist linked to the controversy over whether Mr. Blair's government exaggerated Iraq's weapons threat before the war.

The inquiry into the death of David Kelly opened Friday in London on a somber note, as the investigating judge led a minute-and-a-half of silence in the dead man's memory.

Mr. Kelly was found dead last month with his left wrist slashed. Authorities believe he committed suicide. He died just two days after testifying before a parliamentary committee investigating allegations that the government overstated Iraq's capacity to launch weapons of mass destruction in order to sway the public to support the war. Mr. Kelly was a weapons expert and he had worked as an arms inspector in Iraq.

Following his death, the British Broadcasting Corporation said Mr. Kelly was the primary source for radio and television news stories in May that accused the Blair government of exaggerating the Iraqi threat, a charge Mr. Blair has repeatedly denied.

Lord Justice Brian Hutton opened his inquiry with a detailed review of the known facts and his plan to call witnesses.

He said Prime Minister Blair and his defense secretary will be called to testify. "At some stage in the course of the inquiry I propose to ask the prime minister and the secretary of state for defense, Mr. Geoff Hoon, to give evidence of their knowledge of discussions which took place and the decision which were taken in relation to Dr. Kelly," he anounced.

Mr. Hoon's ministry has been accused of revealing Mr. Kelly's name to news media in early June as the source of the BBC reports, which resulted in the scientist being called before parliament's foreign affairs committee.

The Kelly death shocked Mr. Blair when he learned about it during a trip through Asia last month. It has dominated British news coverage for weeks, and public opinion polls show a sharp decline in support for the prime minister and nagging doubts about Britain's involvement in the Iraq war.