Blair faces Iraq storm

A report Wednesday on prewar British intelligence could expose a credibility gap.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic into the intelligence underpinning the Iraq war point to a simple conclusion: The spies got it wrong. But the bigger question now is whether their political masters will take the rap.

President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair both face looming reelection bids with an uncomfortable perception stalking the hustings: The war to rid the world of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction was made under false pretenses.

Last week, the US Senate Intelligence Committee seriously challenged prewar intelligence estimates.

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This week, Mr. Blair will hear the outcome of the latest British inquiry into intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.

The most likely targets for criticism in the report by Lord Robin Butler are, as in America, not the politicians but the intelligence services and the process through which information was gathered, distilled, and collated. But this, analysts note, raises two key questions.

Can Bush and Blair convince their publics that they did not apply pressure to produce the intelligence they wanted to read? And can they maintain their electoral trustworthiness when the chief reason for the Iraq war has been discredited?

"The intelligence agencies will take quite a bit of blame, but some of the blame will go to their political masters," says Wyn Grant, professor of politics at Warwick University, England, anticipating Wednesday's verdict from the Butler inquiry. "There may be some suggestions that although intelligence was flawed, that it was also misused."

Last week's Senate report was seen as a partial exoneration for politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, as it skirted around the issue of whether the White House - and by association Downing Street - leaned on the intelligence services to produce the kind of damning assessments of the WMD threat that could be used as a casus belli.

But since then, the plot has thickened. Two former intelligence officers have told the BBC that Blair's efforts to justify the war based on the intelligence he was given were dubious. One said his extrapolations went too far.

In particular, his prewar assertion that Mr. Hussein posed a "current and serious threat" when intelligence evidence merely highlighted a possible capability went "way beyond" what any intelligence analyst would have agreed to, the ex-officer, John Morrison, said.

Other intelligence used by the government, such as the claim that Hussein could deploy WMD within 45 minutes, has been criticized by previous inquiries for being taken out of context.

Meanwhile, opposition candidates in both the US and Britain have indicated that flawed intelligence will be an election issue. Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, insisted in weekend interviews that the intelligence community should not be made scapegoats for what were essentially political judgements.

James Lorge, a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, says that Blair's obvious response to any criticism over intelligence failures will be that he was merely supplied with information that wasn't true.

But even then, he says, criticism of intelligence "is inevitably going to undermine all the reasons for the war on Iraq.

"My gut feeling is that it will harm [Labour's] potential for the forthcoming election."

Blair is likely to call elections here next year. The Iraq war and the ongoing intelligence reviews mean that the vote will have a strangely symbiotic link to the US presidential elections in November, analysts say. And for once, a British Labour leader may not be rooting for a Democratic victory.

If John Kerry and John Edwards succeed in making the Iraq war and intelligence imbroglio a decisive factor and win the day, the result could rebound badly on Blair in his own reelection bid a few months later, analysts believe.

"Should Kerry and Edwards succeed in November, it will be bad for Labour, because of the strong alliance between Blair and Bush," says Paul Whiteley, professor of politics and an elections expert at Essex University. "Voters might feel 'George Bush has been held to account over Iraq; may be we should do the same to Blair.' "

Professor Grant adds: "It could be trumpeted in this country by people saying this is Bush being punished for Iraq, even though there will be other domestic factors at play as well."

The converse may also be true. A recent poll found that 53 percent of people in Britain feel Blair should stand down if the Butler report decides that he exaggerated the threat from Hussein - a scenario Bush would hardly relish in the run-up to his own reelection bid.

Blair has reportedly been discussing his future with key allies recently, and speculation of an "early retirement" is never too far away from the press.

Last week, Blair admitted that WMD may never be discovered in Iraq. This week is being touted as another "make-or-break" moment, with the Butler report followed by two by-elections that Labour may lose.

While the Butler report is unlikely to single Blair out for personal blame, it may make life uncomfortable for the prime minister.

Analysts are astonished that no one in Britain has taken the blame yet over the issue, while counterparts in Washington, particularly within the CIA, have faced stinging criticism.

In fact, the only personnel changes in Britain have involved a promotion for John Scarlett, one of the intelligence chiefs at the heart of the affair.

Indeed, the only Iraq-linked resignations to occur in Britain at all have come from the top ranks of the BBC following a report that was condemned by the previous inquiry led by Lord Hutton, even though most of its central allegations about "sexed-up" intelligence appear now to be broadly true.

"If Butler is frank and critical and there are still no resignations, it would look very bad for the government," says Dr. Whiteley. "It will look as though they just go ahead and do what they want."

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