Blair under new pressure to announce war inquiry

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Tony Blair will face fresh criticism today for refusing to give Parliament an independent inquiry on Iraq after giving evidence by video link to President George Bush's Iraq Study Group.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said Mr Blair had repeated the co-ordinated warning by himself and President Bush on Monday to Iran and Syria to become part of the solution to the Middle East, or face isolation.

Iran and Syria, which have offered dialogue to the US in the past, reacted swiftly to the proposal to engage constructively on Iraq and the broader Middle East. But the Iranian leadership set conditions, while a Syrian official newspaper questioned the sincerity of the move.

The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said: "We will talk to the US government under certain conditions. Should it correct its behaviour, we will talk to them."

That comment prompted a sharp response from the White House National Security Council spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, who said: "I don't think this is about a US attitude adjustment.

"The collective attitude of the world is that Iran needs to play a constructive role in the region, not meddle in Iraq and stop its enrichment activities."

President Ahmadinejad also gave no sign yesterday, at a news conference, of reversing Iran's decision to pursue its goal of enriching uranium on an industrial scale. The process can eventually lead to production of a nuclear weapon if the uranium is sufficiently highly enriched. The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, reported yesterday that Iran was pushing ahead with uranium enrichment despite the threat of possible UN sanctions.

The IAEA's report also said that unexplained traces of plutonium, which is the second route to producing a nuclear weapon, had been found at a nuclear waste site.

In Syria, the government newspaper Tishrin said in an editorial that Damascus was "stretching its sincere hand and is waiting for the reactions of the others as the ball is in their court".

But it went on: "Is there any positive change in the US stand that could correct mistakes that have accumulated, and whose consequences have harmed the US and tarnished its image worldwide?... Or are they [statements] no more than attempts to throw dust in the eyes and to keep the situation in the region unresolved for the next years?"

Mr Blair spent about an hour giving evidence by videophone from a bunker in Downing Street to the Iraqi Study Group headed by James Baker, the former US secretary of state.

He was flanked by officials including Sir Nigel Sheinwald, his foreign affairs envoy, who recently visited Damascus to persuade Syria to join the efforts to find a lasting peace in the Middle East and Iraq.

Mr Blair can expect to face angry MPs today at the start of the Queen's Speech debate in the Commons. William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "Having spoken to the Baker commission, Tony Blair must give a frank assessment of the situation in Iraq to Parliament."

According to Downing Street, Mr Blair underlined the need for a peace accord between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. He also emphasised the need for anti-corruption measures over the disposal of oil revenues inside Iraq and of equipping the Iraqi army to take over from the coalition forces.

"By moving ahead in Israel and Palestine we believe you remove the central issue that they exploit to stop progress," Mr Blair's spokesman said. "Are they [Syria and Iran] going to be part of the positive drive forward or are they not?"

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