Blair takes the hot seat in Britain's Iraq-war affair

Thursday, the British prime minister testifies in front of a public inquiry.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair confronts perhaps the most awkward moment in his tenure Thursday when he faces a public inquiry set up to investigate the death of a British scientist at the center of allegations that the government exaggerated the case for war against Iraq.

Mr. Blair can expect to be grilled on his role in theaffair, which started in May with a British Broadcasting Corporation report accusing his government of overstating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's arsenal, and ended two months later with a civil servant committing suicide.

Blair is the highest-profile figure yet to testify in an extraordinary saga that goes to the heart of his motives for war and that has reflected poorly on just about everyone involved - from BBC journalists to government spin doctors, defense-ministry mandarins, and at least one cabinet minister.

For Blair, Britain's longest-serving Labour prime minister with almost 6-1/2 years of service, the appearance marks the start of what many expect to be a difficult new political season. While experts expect Blair to pull through the inquiry relatively unscathed, his domestic agenda is in danger of being totally eclipsed by the affair.

Public opinion has turned on Blair, particularly as no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq since the war ended. A recent poll found 61 percent of people believed the BBC claims that the case for war was hyped up.

"Public opinion doesn't trust Blair," says David Baker, a lecturer in politics at Warwick University, adding that the affair has undermined his efforts to move ahead with other controversial policies, such as holding a referendum on adopting the euro. Momentum on a euro vote has stalled, he adds, because "no one trusts anyone [in government] any more."

The inquiry was set up by Blair himself and run by leading judge, Lord Hutton, to get to the bottom of the July 17 death of Dr. David Kelly, an expert in Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.

Dr. Kelly committed suicide just a week after he was exposed by government officials as the source behind an inflammatory BBC report that alleged that Blair's staff had "sexed up" intelligence in a key dossier produced last fall, in order to beef up the case for war against Iraq.

The chief question in the inquiry is whether the government acted honorably and properly in allowing Kelly's name to dribble out to the press, exposing him to the full force of public scrutiny.

Following his exposure he was subjected to a humiliating parliamentary grilling, and days after that he was dead, incapable, his family says, of dealing with the pressure.

The government official suspected of offering the scientist up as sacrificial lamb, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, told the inquiry Wednesday that Kelly had been "outed" to avoid charges of a coverup and to set the record straight.

But Lord Hutton will also want to know about Blair's role in Kelly's "outing."

"He will be asked how much pressure to reveal Kelly came from his office or from the prime minister himself," says Iain McLean, professor in politics at Oxford University. "A more important question would be, 'Who hardened up the dossier, when, and why?' The inquiry has found out a surprising amount about that."

Indeed, although not strictly tasked with examining whether the dossier was hyped up, the three-week-old hearings have teased out some fascinating snippets.

A snowstorm of e-mails from intelligence officers and Blair's aides betray an effort to get hard and fast WMD intelligence for inclusion in the fall dossier. A picture is emerging of government officials appealing to the intelligence community for any scraps that could be pulled together to make the dossier more convincing.

"The prime minister's office has been doing what prime minister's offices always do, and that is spin," says Professor McLean. "Mr. Blair may be able to make a clean breast of 'outing' Dr. Kelly by saying it was important for national security, and that he didn't know he would go on to kill himself," but it will be harder for him to wiggle free from the charges that his aides "hardened up the dossier," he says.

Though the BBC's broad allegation of exaggeration may well be upheld, the corporation is unlikely to come out of the Hutton inquiry with its reputation enhanced. The inquiry has learned that although editors publicly backed the reporter at the heart of the story, Andrew Gilligan, in private they were not impressed by his choice of language, which may, in turn, have exaggerated his own story.

Gilligan has, moreover, sullied his own reputation by trying to steer parliamentary hearings on the matter in his favor through ill-advised e-mail correspondence with a member of Parliament.

But perhaps the most sensational revelation from the inquiry thus far - it still has another month to go - was an eerily prescient remark by Kelly himself, made to a diplomat earlier this year, that if Britain went to war with Iraq he would be found "dead in the woods."

The revelation produced gasps in the hearing chamber and bafflement among observers. Was there more to Kelly than met the eye? The scientist was an expert on Iraq's weapons and had visited the country many times. Was he under threat or at risk in some way?

Most have discounted such possibilities. Kelly was derided by one Downing Street aide as a "Walter Mitty" character, a fantasist who imagines himself to be at the center of grand intrigues and dark scheming. The reference was unfortunate and produced an apology from the aide, but the sentiment is not dissipating. The scientist was, after all, an ordinary civil servant who apparently offered dangerous and unsubstantiated conjecture that went way beyond his own brief.

"Dr. Kelly is unfortunately going to come out badly," says Dr. Baker. "The Walter Mitty tag will stay hanging in the air, and from what the inquiry has heard so far, he was a loose talker."

And Blair?

"Unless something extra comes out," says Baker, "the hysteria may have damaged him, but the inquiry hasn't hurt him at all."

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