Fresh conflict between the Government and the intelligence services looked certain yesterday after it was revealed that the head of MI6 was quitting his post.
The Foreign Office confirmed that Sir Richard Dearlove, 58, who was appointed in 1999 as "C", will retire from the Secret Intelligence Service in August next year. Sir Richard, who has consistently expressed doubts over the Government's claims about Iraq's military capability, has installed an unnamed deputy who he hopes will become his successor.
But Downing Street is believed to favour John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, who endorsed the Government's September dossier on Iraqi weapons, including the controversial claim that some weapons could be deployed within 45 minutes.
Mr Scarlett, a former MI6 officer who served as head of the Moscow station, is close to Tony Blair and was described last month as a friend by Alastair Campbell, No 10's director of communications.
Sir Richard has briefed senior BBC executives that he believed Syria and Iran were more of a threat to security than Iraq. He met Kevin Marsh, editor of BBC Radio 4's Today programme, and the presenter John Humphrys, before the programme broadcast its original claims about the Government "sexing up" its dossier.
He was worried that the war in Iraq would divert resources from the greater threat posed by al-Qa'ida. While he had no problem with the substance of the September dossier, he had concerns about its presentation. His fury at the so-called "dodgy dossier" of February, which was based on a PhD student's thesis, led to a promise from Mr Blair that all future reports would have full intelligence clearance. The appointment of Sir Richard's successor, to be made personally by the Prime Minister, is now likely to turn into a battle for the perceived independence of MI6.
The Foreign Office said: "Sir Richard Dearlove intends to leave his post as planned in August 2004 on completion of his normal tour of office. This is in no way connected to events relating to Iraq."
Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman, said Sir Richard's departure was the result of difficulties in the relationship between the Government and the intelligence agencies.
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