'Chirac is out to get you,' UK intelligence told Blair

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Britain's intelligence services warned Tony Blair that the French President, Jacques Chirac, was plotting to "get him" in the run-up to the Iraq war, according to a new book about the Prime Minister.

Mr Blair received intelligence reports, based on the President's private conversations, suggesting that the row between the two leaders over the war was really a proxy for the real struggle - to be the leading player on the European stage.

The embarrassing revelations may cast a shadow over the celebrations planned to mark the 100th anniversary of the entente cordiale between Britain and France, which the two governments hope will enable them to heal the wounds caused by the Iraq war.

The book by Philip Stephens, a political columnist forThe Financial Times, says: "Blair came to believe - partly on the basis of reports from British intelligence - that the dispute over Iraq was in fact a proxy for a much more serious contest.

"Chirac, these reports said, had decided that Blair had usurped his own position as the natural leader of Europe. It was time for the French President to reassert himself and clip the wings of perfidious Albion. In other words, this feud was personal as well as political."

Although French officials dismissed that analysis, Mr Stephens writes: "Blair came to believe it, telling close aides that Chirac was 'out to get him'."

Yesterday, Downing Street sought to play down the disclosures and said that it did not do "book reviews." Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "We never comment on intelligence. The Prime Minister enjoys a very good relationship with President Chirac."

In fact, President Chirac's strong opposition to military action helped to rescue the Prime Minister from his domestic crisis over Iraq, says the book, Tony Blair, to be published in the United States next month.

"The snippets of the French President's private conversations reported to Blair suggested that he would like to see him fall.

"But when Chirac declared on 10 March that France would veto any attempt to pass a second resolution at the United Nations, he unwittingly gave Blair the excuse he needed to go to war without further UN authorisation," writes Stephens.

"The Prime Minister and other ministers exploited Chirac's statement relentlessly over the following days, rekindling the national tradition of hostility towards France ... 'It would be so much easier if the vote was about war with France,' one Blair loyalist only half joked as the Prime Minister scrambled for votes."

While describing Mr Blair's close relationship with President George Bush, the book portrays a very different one with Dick Cheney, the American Vice-President, who opposed the multilateral approach to Iraq through the UN being urged by Mr Blair.

"He [Cheney] waged a guerrilla war against the process ... He's a visceral unilateralist," one Blair aide said in the book. "Cheney fought it all the way - at every twist and turn, even after Bush's speech to the UN," said another aide.

In an interview for the book, Mr Blair told Stephens that he believed Saddam Hussein could have been ousted from power without a war if the international community had stood firm.

"I still believe actually that if we had come back together and given a proper ultimatum and an international level, we probably could have got Saddam out," he said.