Bush's envoy sparks another diplomatic incident over war claims

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Indy Politics

The US ambassador in London has been forced into an embarrassing retreat after his embassy clarified comments he made denying that the United States was involved in removing terrorist suspects to Syria.

Robert Tuttle told Radio 4's Today programme last Thursday that there was no evidence that US forces had sent suspected terrorists for questioning in Syria, a practice known as "extraordinary rendition".

The US embassy issued a statement yesterday acknowledging that there had been claims that a suspect arrested in New York had been sent by the CIA for torture in Syria.

It is the second time in recent weeks that Mr Tuttle has had to correct misleading statements about the actions of US forces, and provoked a fresh outcry from Labour MPs over the practice of extraordinary rendition.

Andrew Mackinlay, a senior Labour member of the foreign affairs committee investigating the use of UK airports for rendition by the CIA, said: "It is troubling that they are contradicting their own assurances. We have no confidence in the denials that they have issued. Increasingly, a number of us ... don't believe what the US administration states any more. Nobody believes that this is not going on."

The US ambassador provoked the row after he said on the Today programme that he did not think there was any evidence of renditions of suspects for questioning to Syria.

Mr Tuttle said: "I don't think there is any evidence that there have been any renditions carried out in the country of Syria ... I think we have to take what the Secretary [Condoleezza Rice] says at face value ... she has said we do not authorise, condone torture in any way, shape or form."

Yesterday the embassy moved to correct his statement. A statement, read out on Radio 4, quoted an embassy spokeswoman as saying: "... the ambassador recognised that there had been a media report of a rendition to Syria but reiterated that the United States is not in a position to comment on specific allegations of intelligence activities that appear in the press."

One suspect, a Canadian of Syrian decent, claimed he was tortured in Syria after being arrested in New York and taken there by the CIA via Jordan.

The latest denials by the US will dismay Tony Blair, who returned with an upbeat message from a pre-Christmas visit to British troops in Basra. It will also undermine his efforts to keep a lid on the row over the CIA's rendition of suspects abroad. It is certain to lead to renewed demands by a growing cross-party campaign for an independent inquiry.

The highly secretive Intelligence and Security Committee, chaired by a former Cabinet minister, Paul Murphy, is to mount an inquiry into the use of British airports for the CIA flights, The Independent has learned. However, this reports directly to Mr Blair and is not regarded as sufficiently independent.

Mr Tuttle was involved in an earlier embarrassing denial when he insisted in a letter to The Independent that US forces did not use white phosphorous as a weapon. His remarks were quickly contradicted by US gun crews in their own internet magazine, in which they boasted of using white phosphorous in a "shake and bake" mission against insurgents in the assault on Fallujah. The US Marines said they had used white phosphorous to attack insurgents dug in around the Iraqi city. Mr Tuttle had insisted it was only used as an incendiary device to illuminate enemy combatants.

Their man in London...

By Mark Dearn

Robert "Bob" Holmes Tuttle, Republican fundraiser and Beverley Hills car-dealer, was sworn in as Ambassador to the Court of St James on 14 July, 2005.

Tuttle's appointment came after nearly a year without a US ambassador, which sparked controversy over how seriously the US treats the position. Educated at Stanford University and the University of Southern California, where he gained an MBA, Tuttle is known with his wife, Maria Hummer, as a prominent sponsor and collector of the arts.

Co-managing partner of Tuttle-Click Automotive Group, Robert Tuttle is a close friend of President Bush and his father. Tuttle's political career began in 1982 when he joined the White House staff as assistant to President Reagan. Reagan appointed Tuttle Director of Presidential Personnel in 1985. Speaking to students in Manchester after Hurricane Katrina, Tuttle criticised the Mayor of New Orleans and rejected claims that the aftermath revealed America's racial problems, saying: "It's not a race issue at all."