Tony Blair will face an angry Commons this week as MPs absorb the 1,000-page report from the Iraq Survey Group, which spent 18 months in a vain search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
The Prime Minister faces the prospect of an emergency debate on Iraq as his opponents step up the pressure on him to make an unqualified apology.
Hans Blix, the former UN chief weapons inspector, said the report was further evidence "that the reality on the ground was totally different from the virtual reality that had been spun". Writing today in The Independent on Sunday, Mr Blix said the report was all the more damning because its main author, Charles Duelfer, was a pro-war "hawk" appointed by the CIA.
His words were echoed by the former UN inspector Scott Ritter, also writing in the IoS, who claimed that "the last vestiges of perceived legitimacy regarding the decision of US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to invade Iraq have been eliminated". The Prime Minister can expect fierce questions about the report when he addresses a private meeting of Labour MPs and peers in the Commons tomorrow.
Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister, is to table a motiondemanding that the Prime Minister issue a full apology for claiming before the war that Iraq's weaponry posed a current threat.
One former Labour minister, who backed the decision to go to war, said: "I don't think the line is sustainable any more, when there has been an error on that scale, and people have been killed - and nothing happens. Somebody has to accept the consequences."
Downing Street displayed its nervousness over how the ISG report will affect backbench opinion by sending every Labour MP a briefing note from No 10 putting the best possible gloss on the document. Leadership hopes that a resurgent Conservative party would help unite Labour were dashed last night, however, as polls suggested that Michael Howard has, if anything, lost support in recent weeks.
Iraq brought sharp exchanges in the second US presidential debate between Mr Bush and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry. "The President didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he's turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception," Senator Kerry said in St Louis. Mr Bush retorted: "They're trying to say, 'Did you make a mistake going into Iraq?' And the answer is, 'Absolutely not.' It was the right decision."
In Britain, political arguments over the Iraq war were suspended yesterday out of respect for the murdered hostage Ken Bigley. Mr Bush and Mr Blair are expected to derive some comfort, however, from the decisive election victory yesterday of the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, whose Labor opponents had promised to withdraw the country's troops from Iraq by the end of the year if they won.
However, Douglas Hurd, the foreign secretary during the 1990-91 Gulf War, told the IoS: "The case given for war having evaporated, it has now been relegated to a hypothesis of a future threat. This is a different thing from the real and growing threat we were told about before the war, and it is not grounds for attacking a sovereign country."
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