Blair to offer partial apology over war

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Tony Blair is preparing to issue a partial apology over Iraq in response to strong criticism of Britain's pre-war intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction expected in the Butler inquiry report next week.

Tony Blair is preparing to issue a partial apology over Iraq in response to strong criticism of Britain's pre-war intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction expected in the Butler inquiry report next week.

The Prime Minister has rejected the idea of saying "sorry" for the war when the investigation reports a week tomorrow, but is being urged by close advisers to admit that mistakes were made in the gathering of the intelligence and its use by the Government.

In a Commons statement on the day the report is published, Mr Blair will try to finally end debate over the Iraq war by promising to implement the inquiry's recommendations about the use of such intelligence in the future.

Allies say he will not apologise for a war he insists was justified to oust Saddam Hussein and is sure that history will judge as right. But there is an intense debate inside Downing Street about the tone that Mr Blair should adopt when he describes what went wrong over the intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Some aides want Mr Blair to try to turn the Butler report to his advantage by issuing a frank admission that he was wrong to base the case for war on WMD. "This could be a cathartic moment - but only if we say it strongly enough," one said yesterday. Other advisers are arguing that Mr Blair has nothing to apologise for despite the failure to find WMD in Iraq.

Some Blair aides hope the Butler report will enable the Government to finally "move on" from Iraq and focus on the domestic political agenda, but admit that its ability to do so will be determined by events in Iraq. Some advisers believe the Prime Minister will not draw a line under the war until he has won another general election.

Although the Prime Minister's statement will not be finalised until he receives the Butler report, close allies believe he will adopt a middle course. "He won't say sorry but he will accept that mistakes were made if that is what Butler concludes and he will promise that lessons will be learnt," one said.

Mr Blair is expected to argue that Saddam intended to acquire WMD even if - as is widely believed - he failed to do so. He will accept responsibility for the claims issued by the Government about Iraq's weapons programme and is adamant that he will not try to shift the blame on to intelligence chiefs. Indeed, he is expected to praise them for doing an excellent job for Britain in difficult circumstances.

Lord Butler of Brockwell, the former cabinet secretary, is expected to criticise the "systems and procedures" used in the build-up to the war, including informal meetings in Mr Blair's office at which minutes were not taken. The inquiry team has studied closely the compilation of the dossier on Iraqi weapons, published in September 2002, which included the claim that Saddam could deploy his weapons within 45 minutes.

Downing Street is bracing itself for strong criticisms. The former cabinet secretary has interpreted his brief widely and witnesses questioned by his team say that he has conducted a thorough investigation.

A partial apology by Mr Blair will not satisfy many of his critics. Some Labour MPs have said that "saying sorry" is not enough and want a promise that Britain could never again go to war on such a basis.

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