Blair still haunted by Kelly suicide fallout

A year after the death of government weapons scientist David Kelly and two Iraq inquiries later, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is struggling to convince the public that his decision to oust Saddam Hussein by military means was right.

British arms expert Kelly slashed his wrists and bled to death during the night of July 17 2003 after his employer, the Ministry of Defence, identified him as the source of a BBC report that accused the government of deliberately exaggerating the threat of Iraqi weapons ahead of the United States-led invasion.

The fallout for Blair from Kelly’s suicide has been immense.

Despite being cleared of any wrongdoing by two judicial inquiries, one into the death of Kelly and on Wednesday of failings over the unreliable nature of Britain’s pre-war intelligence on Iraq, the prime minister remains under attack from voters over his decision to go to war.

Blair’s Labour party on Thursday lost a key by-election in Leicester South, central England—which it had held almost without break for the past five decades—to a candidate from the vehemently anti-Iraq war Liberal Democrat party.

“Iraq was a significant factor, but is also symbolic of the lack of trust in Tony Blair,” Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said of his party’s success.

Kelly (59) killed himself near his Oxfordshire home, central England, after he was exposed as the source of a May 29 BBC radio report that alleged the government’s September 2002 dossier on Iraq was “sexed up”.

The BBC had claimed that the dossier was exaggerated, notably with a headline-making claim that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons in a mere 45 minutes.

The dossier was an essential part of Blair’s efforts to get a sceptical British public to support a US and British invasion to overthrow Saddam and rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

The investigation into Kelly’s death, led by Judge Brian Hutton, cleared Blair’s government of any wrongdoing, but launched a scathing attack on the BBC in its findings published on January 28.

The BBC’s popular chief executive, Greg Dyke, and its chairperson, Gavyn Davies, resigned immediately in the wake of Hutton’s findings.

Hutton criticised the BBC for lax editorial supervision and failing to respond to strident demands by Blair’s office for the broadcaster to retract the report by journalist Andrew Gilligan.

With no such weapons of mass destruction yet uncovered in Iraq, Blair on Wednesday acknowledged that it seemed “increasingly clear” that Saddam might not have had any weapons of mass destruction ready to deploy before the war but this did not make the conflict wrong.

Blair spoke after an official British inquiry lambasted the state of pre-war intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction but cleared the prime minister of responsibility for the failings.

Blair called the inquiry, headed by Lord Robin Butler, in February to look into intelligence failures ahead of the war.—Sapa-AFP

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