Howard accuses PM of lying about Iraqi weapons

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Michael Howard has accused Tony Blair of lying over Iraq's weapons in a new attempt to put distance between the Tories and the Government over the war.

Michael Howard has accused Tony Blair of lying over Iraq's weapons in a new attempt to put distance between the Tories and the Government over the war.

In an interview in today's New Statesman magazine, the Tory leader said: "Iraq has been the catalyst for the distrust with which people regard the present government. I think people hold the view pretty firmly now that they were lied to over Iraq. I don't think that's the only think they were lied to about, but Iraq is the great catalyst for the loss of trust in the Government."

In the past, Mr Howard has stopped short of accusing the Prime Minister of lying. Asked whether he believed the British people were lied to, he replied: "Over Iraq? Yes. Notably when he had intelligence, as is set out in full in the Butler report, which was hedged with qualifications, caveats, warnings, which he translated into certainty. That was the unambiguous evidence that he put to the country."

The Tory leader's interview shows that he is determined to exploit Mr Blair's continuing problems over Iraq, even though the Opposition supported military action.

An unrepentant Mr Blair said yesterday that he could win support for another Iraq-style war as he defended his refusal to apologise for the conflict.

The Prime Minister told BBC Radio 4: "I am afraid I don't accept that people won't trust a judgement that is made, provided the evidence is given to them." But he acknowledged: "In the light of what has happened, people will want to know that any evidence that is given is very soundly based."

He said he was aware his decisions on Iraq had not made him very popular, but added: "The time to trust politicians most is actually when they are courting popularity least, because they are doing something they believe in."

Mr Blair came under further pressure on Iraq when a leaked Pentagon document showed that British and American commanders began planning for military action nine months before the war started.

The paper showed that a high-level planning conference took place in June 2002, at a time when Mr Blair denied preparing to intervene in Iraq. The coalition partners discussed sending British troops to Turkey in August 2002, in what would have been the first deployment of the conflict.

According to the Pentagon document, the first planning orders for the Iraq operation was made in October 2002, a month before the United Nations approved resolution 1441 giving Saddam Hussein one "final opportunity" to disarm.

The revelations fuelled claims that President George Bush and Mr Blair had agreed on military action much earlier than they admit. Clare Short, the former cabinet minister who resigned after the war, said: "We are now learning, by revelation on revelation, that Blair committed himself to go to war a year before it was agreed."

Downing Street denied that Mr Blair had misled MPs when he told them, in July 2002, that no decisions had been taken on military action. It stated: "We have said all along that people carried out scenario planning. The actual decision on war was not taken until the Commons voted in March 2003. There is a difference between a decision and contingency planning."