Campbell is accused of exaggerating opposition to Iraq war to boost image

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Indy Politics

Iraq has become a major issue in the Liberal Democrats' leadership race after opponents of Sir Menzies Campbell accused him of exaggerating his opposition to the war.

As the party's foreign affairs spokesman, Sir Menzies achieved a high media profile as a leading critic of Tony Blair's decision to join the American invasion in 2003. But critics in his own party claim he "wobbled" behind the scenes over Charles Kennedy's strong opposition to the war.

Supporters of Simon Hughes and Chris Huhne, his rivals in the race to succeed Mr Kennedy, are reminding Liberal Democrat members that they joined Mr Kennedy on the London march against the war in February 2003. Sir Menzies admits he wanted Mr Kennedy to stay away.

His rivals are also highlighting public statements by Sir Menzies about Saddam Hussein's arsenal. When the Government produced a dossier about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction in September 2002, Sir Menzies told the Commons: "We can also agree that he most certainly has chemical and biological weapons and is working towards a nuclear capability. The dossier contains confirmation of information we either knew or should have been willing to assume."

Sir Menzies opposed Mr Kennedy's decision to boycott the Butler inquiry into the flawed pre-war intelligence. Mr Blair tried to bounce Mr Kennedy into backing it in a phone call just before it was announced but the Liberal Democrat leader was wary of the terms of reference. His decision was vindicated when the Tories initially joined the Butler committee but then withdrew their official support.

Questioned by Liberal Democrat students this week, Sir Menzies admitted: "We had to consider the political downside of not participating."

Allies of Mr Kennedy confirmed there was tension between him and Sir Menzies over Iraq. While Mr Kennedy accused Mr Blair of taking Britain to war on a "false prospectus", Sir Menzies would only call it "flawed" rather than "false".

One senior Liberal Democrat said: "Ming was brilliant on Iraq once he had made his mind up, but was much slower than Charles to see through Blair's lies and spot what Iraq meant for British domestic politics."

Critics claim his initial stance on the war shows that Sir Menzies is an "establishment man". Another senior party figure said: "He thought there was good strong intelligence in [the dossier] that needed to be taken seriously. He did not want Charles to go on the march and was very worried about being associated with all those anti-war types. As ever with Ming, he took a superior attitude."

Sir Menzies admitted he had "some reservations" about Mr Kennedy joining the anti-war march but supported his decision. He said: "It was clear that this was a march that was going to have people on it with a variety of motivations, some of whom were traditionally, unashamedly and unequivocally anti-American. I am not anti-American. I was concerned that he [Mr Kennedy] might find himself associated with a very anti-American approach."

Denying he wobbled over the war, Sir Menzies said: "I was opposed from the very beginning."

His spokesman dismissed the criticism as "surprising", saying Sir Menzies was widely regarded as the leading voice who exposed the flaws in Mr Blair's Iraq policy.

Mr Kennedy's allies claim his deputy could have done more to save his leadership - a charge denied by Sir Menzies. After supporters of Sir Menzies accused Mr Huhne of reneging on a deal to support him in the leadership contest, Anna Werrin, one of Mr Kennedy's aides, told colleagues in an e-mail yesterday: "How can Chris [Huhne] have reneged on a deal with Ming [Campbell] when Ming has denied he was involved in any plot to bring Charles down?"

Candidates also clashed over the future of Iraq.