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Blair holds firm on Iraq rationale

Denies decision was based on bad intelligence

LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair, facing the prospect of another potentially critical report on Britain's participation in the war in Iraq, insisted yesterday that he made the right decision and denied it was based on bad intelligence about weapons of mass destruction.

The question was whether the report, to be released today, would blame an overall intelligence failure, or hold Blair accountable.

Asked by reporters whether he had been misled by bad intelligence, Blair replied: "I don't accept that at all." The world, he said, was "better, safer, more secure" with Saddam Hussein out of power.

Blair received the report yesterday, and told reporters he wouldn't comment on it until it was made public 24 hours later.

The prime minister's supporters hope the investigation led by Lord Butler, a retired aide to five prime ministers, will echo last week's US Senate Intelligence Committee report and fault structures and processes rather than individuals.

The Senate report said most of the CIA's claims about Hussein's chemical, biological, and nuclear arsenal were overstated or unsupported. It noted that the United States was not alone in its beliefs, citing a "global intelligence failure."

Blair's opponents, including some who supported the war, are looking for part of the blame to fall on him.

"Tony Blair should admit that he was wrong about the size, scope, and capacity of Iraq's WMD arsenal," Charles Kennedy, leader of the antiwar Liberal Democrats, said yesterday.

"He could apologize for misleading the people and Parliament," Kennedy added.

Opponents of the war hope Butler's report shows the government pressured intelligence chiefs to exaggerate Hussein's weapons capability.

Three previous inquiries have cleared the government of that charge, but Blair's popularity has been hammered by the continuing violence in Iraq and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction there.

He has also disillusioned left-wing supporters with his welfare and education reforms, and his strongest assets -- his image of good judgment and truthfulness -- have suffered from his rationale for going to war.

Last week, Blair conceded "we may not find" weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. "They could have been removed, they could have been hidden, they could have been destroyed."

Yet despite intense media speculation about Blair's future, his Labor Party is ahead in the polls, commands a huge parliamentary majority, and is unlikely to face elections for about another year.

Inflation and unemployment are low, and Blair is in no worse a position than past British prime ministers midway through a second term.

Still, some Labor members worry the war has made him an electoral liability, and there are constant reports of tension between Blair and Treasury chief Gordon Brown.

Blair's supporters have accused the media of whipping up resignation rumors and insist Blair intends to win and complete another term in office.

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