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Blair-BBC row deepens in Britain

This week, Prime Minister Blair continued to deny that he inflated claims on Iraq's banned weapons.

By Mark Rice-OxleySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 10, 2003


The fighting crackles on in Iraq, but it's in London that the truly bitter hostilities have broken out.

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A poisonous row over claims by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that the British government overstated the case for disarming in Iraq has degenerated into open warfare.

The furor, which has lasted longer than the Iraq war itself, is the most antagonistic between a British government and the state-owned broadcaster for a generation, and is beginning to threaten both the reputation of the BBC and the popularity of the government.

More important, it has raised fundamental questions about Prime Minister Tony Blair's justification for going to war. Mr. Blair has always insisted the war was about disarming Iraq. But the BBC report, combined with the fact that no significant illicit weapons have yet been found in Iraq, has caused the public to question the government's case.

In April, 64 percent of Britons supported involvement in Iraq. That number is now down to 47 percent. Paul Whiteley, professor of politics at Essex University, says that the decline in public opinion, coupled with the fact the BBC is generally seen by Britons as more trustworthy than the government, suggests that the government made a mistake in taking on the broadcaster.

"If it's a straight-out fight between government and the BBC, the electorate is going to trust the BBC," he says.

Details 'sexed up'

The dispute centers on allegations made at the end of May by a BBC correspondent that the government doctored intelligence to beef up the case for war. The correspondent cited a senior intelligence official involved in preparing a dossier last fall on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, who said that details of Baghdad's WMD program had been "sexed up" by the government's communications chief, Alastair Campbell.

Specifically, the intelligence official said, a thinly sourced piece of intelligence suggesting that Saddam Hussein could mobilize chemical weapons within 45 minutes was inserted into the document against the advice of the intelligence community.

In the US, President Bush has come under fire for relying on faulty intelligence - also British - to bolster his case for disarming Iraq. The White House said earlier this week that claims by Mr. Bush in his January State of the Union speech that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium from Africa were based on forged documents. Congressional Democrats want a full investigation into the administration's case for war.

Because of this admission, Prime Minister John Howard of Australia, another key coalition ally, has come under verbal attacks from opposition lawmakers who were opposed to Australia's involvement in the war.

The British government has responded furiously to the BBC's claim, accusing it of basing its report on a single unnamed, uncorroborated source. Mr. Campbell, a pugnacious gatekeeper with a withering contempt for some journalists, has been grilled by members of Parliament and TV interviewers, thundering his innocence and repeatedly demanding retractions and apologies.