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Blair Faces Allegations that Defense Secretary Misled Parliament - 2003-09-10


British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been hit by new controversy over his Iraq policy. A British newspaper says that a parliamentary report to be published Thursday will say his defense secretary misled parliament about government intelligence on Iraq's weapons threat. The issue is dominating debate in parliament.

The political future of British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon is looking dim after a newspaper reported he is being accused of giving misleading evidence to parliament about Iraq.

According to the Evening Standard newspaper, the parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee has made the charge in a report that will be made public Thursday. Prime Minister Blair says he will not move up the report's release, and he denies anyone in his office gave an advance copy to the newspaper.

The newspaper says the key allegation is that Mr. Hoon denied to the committee that there had been differences among defense intelligence experts over the seriousness of Iraq's weapons threat. The committee later learned that a memo from one of Mr. Hoon's officials recommended he tell the committee that intelligence staff concerns had been fully discussed. The committee was investigating the validity of a dossier the government issued before the war to help justify its decision to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Mr. Hoon declined to comment on the report Wednesday, but Prime Minister Blair stood up for his defense secretary during his weekly "question time" appearance in parliament.

"In relation to the defense secretary, I think we should recognize that in these past few months - indeed under his leadership in the defense department - we have won a magnificent victory in Iraq, our troops are now engaged in heroically rebuilding that country," said Mr. Blair.

The leader of the opposition Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith, said the Hoon affair and the recent departure of Mr. Blair's communications chief, Alastair Campbell, underscore the public relations problems facing Mr. Blair.

"Is not this leaked report another nail in the coffin of this government?" asked the opposition leader "You can get rid of Campbell, you can even get rid of the defense secretary, but the lying and the spinning will not stop until we get rid of this prime minister."

The other key opposition leader, Charles Kennedy of the Liberal Democrats, called the situation in Iraq "dangerously unstable" and he said Mr. Blair should get more international support.

The prime minister replied that Britain is committed to Iraq for the long haul. "When he says to us, 'Should not we be worried about the situation?" Yes, of course we should," insisted Mr. Blair. "But the answer to it is not to run away from Iraq. The answer is not to turn our back on the task. The answer is to see the task through because it was the right thing to do at the time. It is the right thing to do now. And we will get the job done."

Mr. Blair also pointed to progress in Iraq that has gotten little public attention, including the reopening of all hospitals and the completion of year-end exams by more than five million Iraqi school children.