Blair rounds on Short and war critics

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair's frustration with claims that he misled the nation over the war on Iraq boiled over yesterday when he made an unprecedented attack on Clare Short, calling her a liar, and rejected calls for an independent inquiry into the affair.

After days of mounting pressure, the Prime Minister was forced to issue his strongest denial that Downing Street had exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Sweating profusely at a G8 summit press conference in Evian, Mr Blair appeared uncomfortable in the extreme as he rebutted charges his spin machine had "duped" the country into war. He even adopted the logic of his critics, who have long demanded evidence of his pretext for war, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and represented an imminent threat to the West.

Denying accusations that he had deliberately misled the nation, Mr Blair said: "I think it is important that if people actually have evidence that they produce it. But it is wrong, frankly, for people to make allegations on the basis of so-called anonymous sources, when the facts are precisely the facts we have stated."

Labour MPs intensified demands for a full investigation into the alleged manipulation of intelligence reports about Baghdad's weapons. Mr Blair will come under fresh pressure from MPs tomorrow when he makes a Commons statement. One Labour backbencher said the issue was as serious as the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon.

Amid claims that Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's communications chief, could become the scapegoat for the controversy, the Tories added to the pressure by warning that key questions were unanswered.

Today, Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, becomes the first leader of a mainstream political party to demand an inquiry. Writing in The Independent, Mr Kennedy says Mr Blair's attempts to make the case for war have seriously harmed his standing and trust in the Government.

Clearly angry that the allegations had overshadowed his six-day tour of Iraq, Poland, Russia and France, Mr Blair ruled out yesterday an independent inquiry into the events leading up to the war. He said he stood "100 per cent" behind the evidence in government dossiers on the Iraqi threat and rejected claims that information was "sexed up" to justify the war. But the allegation that appeared to have provoked Mr Blair more than any other was Ms Short's claim that there was no real Cabinet role in the decisions leading up to the war, because everything of importance was decided "secretly" by Mr Blair and George Bush.

His discomfiture was increased by the sweltering heat during his press conference in a crowded marquee where the air conditioning had been switched off for almost an hour.

"The idea that apparently Clare Short is saying I made some secret agreement with George Bush back last September that we would invade Iraq in any event at a particular time is completely and totally untrue," he said. "Charges should have evidence but there is none.'' Mr Blair said every single piece of intelligence presented by Downing Street was cleared "very properly" by the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Mr Blair insisted critics should wait until the 1,400 US, British and Australian investigators sent in to search for Iraq's weapons had finished work. "The idea that we doctored intelligence reports in order to invent some notion about a 45-minute capability of delivering weapons of mass destruction is completely and totally false," he said.

An international survey group on WMD was starting its work this week interviewing scientists and experts. "When we accumulate that evidence properly we will give it to people. I have no doubt at all the assessments made by the British intelligence services will turn out to be correct," he said.

Ahmed Chalabi, president of the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group, told BBC's Newsnight it was "unlikely" that the claim that Iraq's weapons could be launched within 45 minutes had come from anyone linked to his organisation.

Malcolm Savidge, Labour MP for Aberdeen North and one of 73 MPs who have signed a Commons motion calling for the Government's evidence to be published in full, said: "I cannot conceive of a more serious accusation than that Parliament and the people could have been misled into being brought into a war on false pretences. That to me is more serious than Watergate."