Blair puts credibility on line as weapons row builds

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair faced Labour demands last night for an independent inquiry into the Iraq crisis after a double attack by two former cabinet ministers into his handling of the build-up to war.

Robin Cook, the former leader of the Commons, led calls for the investigation ­ with full access to secret papers ­ to be carried out as soon as possible.

And Clare Short, who resigned last month as International Development Secretary, accused the Prime Minister of deceiving the Cabinet three times. She claimed he misled ministers on the immediate risk from Saddam Hussein and on the position of Jacques Chirac, the French President, as well as secretly agreeing with George Bush, the US President, last September to launch military action.

A YouGov opinion poll conducted for The Daily Telegraph found that 44 per cent of voters felt that they had been misled about the threat of illegal weapons. And while 71 per cent of voters believed before the war that Iraq possessed such weapons, only 51 per cent thought the same way now.

Last night, Downing Street was forced to deny an ITN report that officials in No 10 had privately conceded that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) might never be found.

The report contradicted Mr Blair's forecast yesterday that "people will be very, very well satisfied" when they saw the new evidence that Iraq had such weapons. He suggested public concern had been stoked up by "utterly false" reports that politicians had doctored intelligence reports to make his case easier.

But his former ministers' attacks ­ and claims that intelligence information about WMD had been "sexed up" ­ set the scene for a torrid return to Britain for Mr Blair tomorrow from his six-day world tour.The Liberal Democrats are also considering whether to call an emergency debate.

Mr Cook said it now appeared that the Government had made a "monumental blunder" over Iraq. "In the real world, governments make mistakes but what they must never do is try to deny and cover up these mistakes," he said. "The Government should admit it was wrong and it needs to set up a thorough independent inquiry into how it got it wrong, so it never happens again and we never again send British troops into action on the basis of a mistake."

Several MPs are preparing to echo his call in the Commons this week. They are demanding an investigation along the lines of the Franks inquiry, which was set up by Margaret Thatcher to examine the build-up to the Falklands War.

Ms Short said the country needed to get to the truth over Iraq because it was "such a big historical issue". She claimed the "War Cabinet" barely met, with all the crucial decisions taken by Mr Blair and Mr Bush and their advisers. She said: "Because all this was done secretly, the preparations for post-conflict were poor, and we have got the chaos and suffering that we have got now."

Mr Blair said yesterday: "I am not going to give a running commentary. But when you see this put together ... the evidence of the scientists and the witnesses, and the investigations of the sites, then I think people will be very, very well satisfied."

At least one American soldier was injured and one Iraqi killed yesterday when a bomb exploded under a US armoured personnel carrier outside the Abu Hanifa mosque in the Sunni Azamiyah district of Baghdad. The US troops also came under sniper fire.