Blair fears being hung out to dry by Bush over WMD

White House confirms possibility of independent inquiry into war. PM isolated over wait-and-see policy as weapons hunt flounders
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Close associates of Tony Blair fear that the Prime Minister is on the point of being hung out to dry by President George Bush over the issue of whether Iraq held weapons of mass destruction when Britain and the US went to war last March.

Under pressure from the Democrats and some prominent Republicans in an election year, Mr Bush is edging towards an admission that the intelligence used by the US and Britain to justify the war was faulty. White House sources said yesterday that he may yield to demands for an independent inquiry into the failure of intelligence on Iraq.

One leading ally of the Prime Minister said: "There have been signs of a divergent strategy in Washington. This is a real problem for Blair."

Having enlisted Britain's spies in making the case for war in the September 2002 dossier on Iraq's WMD, the Prime Minister is less able than Mr Bush to distance himself. The White House, unlike No 10, never staked its entire case for war on Iraq's alleged possession of WMD, and may seek to deflect blame on to the CIA and other intelligence agencies, including MI6.

The changing message from Washington comes as Downing Street advisers are still recovering from their astonishment at public reaction to last week's Hutton report into the suicide of the weapons expert David Kelly.

Instead of seeing the report as proof that Mr Blair believed in the existence of Iraq's illegal weaponry when the took the country to war, the public - according to early opinion polls - thinks that the BBC has been unfairly traduced for trying to uncover the truth behind the decision to go to war.

Last week he brushed aside calls to open an inquiry into the quality of British intelligence reports on Iraq's pre-war weaponry, which will increase when he is questioned by MPs this week.

He has consistently ducked the issue of why no chemical or biological weapons have been found in post-war Iraq, insisting that the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), which has been vainly searching for them since last spring, must be given time to complete its work. This could take years, because inspectors have accumulated a vast quantity of documents, now waiting in a warehouse in Qatar to be translated and analysed. There is said to be enough paper to form a column 10 miles high.

Until recently the hope in London and Washington was that the ISG would keep working until after the US presidential election and the general election likely to be called in the UK next year, allowing both leaders to seek re-election without having to answer awkward questions about whether they used faulty intelligence to justify the war.

Fears that Washington might abandon Mr Blair's "wait and see" line have increased since Mr Bush himself implicitly acknowledged that the failure to turn up WMD was not what he had been led to expect from the intelligence reports he was shown prior to the war.

The President has come under heavy pressure to hold an inquiry into the pre-war intelligence reports since David Kay, former head of the ISG, suggested that the weapons will never be found because they were never there. Dr Kay told the Senate Armed Services Committee: "In my view, we were almost all wrong. I had numerous analysts apologising that the world they were finding was not the world they thought existed and that they had estimated."

Mr Blair is also facing demands at home for a public inquiry, and is expected to be questioned on the subject when he appears before the Commons Liaison Committee on Tuesday. On the same day, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee is likely to decide to hold a series of public hearings into the origins of the war.

This is the committee that questioned Dr Kelly in public two days before his suicide, and a decision to open another inquiry would be highly unwelcome in Downing Street.