MPs split over 'sexing up' of Iraq weapons dossier

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The verdict on allegations that Alastair Campbell exaggerated Saddam Hussein's weaponry before the war in Iraq will be disputed today as MPs meet to draw up their report into the affair.

Members of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee are likely to split over claims that the Prime Minister's director of communications "sexed up" the Government's dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

The 11-strong committee, which also plans to meet on Thursday, will attempt to reconcile conflicting evidence after Mr Campbell angrily denied reports by Andrew Gilligan, a BBC defence correspondent.

Donald Anderson, the committee's chairman, has the difficult task of attempting to secure unanimity for a report, despite a wide range of views within the committee.

MPs will also report on evidence from Robin Cook and Clare Short that intelligence briefings given to cabinet ministers said the threat from Saddam's weapons was not high and concerns about the quality of intelligence suggesting that the Iraqi regime attempted to acquire uranium from the African state of Niger.

Downing Street yesterday refused to "back down one inch" in its increasingly acrimonious dispute with the BBC over the claims. The Prime Minister's official spokesman insisted that there had been a "deafening silence" from the corporation, despite a temporary ceasefire in the Government's bitter exchanges with the BBC, accusing it of failing to answer crucial questions about its reports.

Mr Blair's spokesman said: "It's not a question of us declaring a truce or backing down one inch. Essentially it seems pointless to us to have further exchanges with people who are prepared to defend a story they can't substantiate and which we know to be untrue.

"The BBC cannot or do not want to answer the very simple question, and the only question that matters in all this, which is, are the allegations they made true or false.

"The BBC might wish to pretend otherwise but they had not answered the question. Saying that 'we stand by our story in as much as we accurately reported what we were told' does not answer that question.

"Saying that the Government has confirmed when this was included in the September dossier does not answer that question. Trying to move the goal posts and shift the argument completely and turn this into a debate about the whereabouts of WMD, granted a real issue, does not answer the question."

He accused the BBC of "trying to shift the goalposts and trying to shift the question".

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, insisted that the decision to take military action "was justified on the day we took it on the evidence that was available to the international community." He told BBC Radio 4: "What we have seen subsequently is proof positive of a number of the anxieties and claims made by the international community going back to last October, including their development of illegal weapons systems, a lot of circumstantial evidence about chemical and biological weapons capability."

HOW THE SELECT COMMITTEE IS LINING UP

Donald Anderson, Labour MP for Swansea East, committee chairman

Veteran backbencher reinstated as a select committee chairman after a revolt by Labour MPs after the last election. Raised the political heat by writing to Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, at start of inquiry. Normally loyal, but surprisingly aggressive in hearing with Jack Straw.

Likely verdict: Try to form consensus.

David Chidgey, Liberal Democrat MP for Eastleigh

A former frontbencher, aggressive in questioning of Mr Straw, dismissing his attempts to concentrate on the Government's row with the BBC rather than the decision to go to war.

Likely verdict: Critical.

Fabian Hamilton, Labour MP for Leeds North East

Loyal backbencher who told Mr Campbell he had "very convincingly and persuasively shown that Andrew Gilligan has told lies about you and the Prime Minister", but questioned Mr Campbell closely about claims that Iraq attempted to acquire uranium from Niger.

Likely verdict: Supportive.

Eric Illsley, Labour MP for Barnsley Central

Backbencher who broke with precedent on Sunday to declare that he and many other members of the committee were convinced that Mr Campbell did not exaggerate the threat. He said Mr Straw had convinced MPs that the "45-minute" claim had been inserted in the September dossier by the intelligence services.

Likely verdict: Supportive.

Andrew Mackinlay, Labour MP for Thurrock

Independent-minded backbencher who won plaudits for his questioning of Mr Straw. He told the Foreign Secretary the "dodgy dossier" was an "acute embarrassment" to those who supported the war. Thought to have been unimpressed by Mr Gilligan's appearance and persuaded by Mr Straw's evidence given in secret.

Likely verdict: Difficult to call.

John Maples, Tory MP for Stratford-on-Avon

Former Treasury minister who pressed for Mr Campbell to be summoned. Aggressive in questioning Mr Straw and Mr Campbell, but has suggested the likely outcome is a draw.

Likely verdict: Critical.

Bill Olner, Labour MP for Nuneaton

Loyal backbencher who made a low-key contribution. He did not attend the three-hour session with Mr Campbell or Mr Straw's follow-up meeting with MPs on Friday.

Likely verdict: Supportive.

Richard Ottaway, Tory MP for Croydon South

Former whip. Sceptical of the Government. Clashed repeatedly with Mr Straw about the status of draft dossiers, but said the Foreign Secretary's private evidence on the "45-minute" claim was impressive.

Likely verdict: Critical.

Greg Pope, Labour MP for Hyndburn

Former whip,a loyalist. He told Mr Gilligan he needed "further evidence of exaggeration" and observed while questioning Mr Straw on Friday that the BBC's intelligence source should "put up or shut up".

Likely verdict: Supportive

Sir John Stanley, Tory MP for Tonbridge & Malling

A former armed forces minister, Sir John was the star performer with his incisive and sceptical questioning. He was clearly irritated at Mr Campbell for using the committee to attack the BBC.

Likely verdict: Critical.

Gisela Stuart, Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston

Former Home Office and Health minister, known as a Blair loyalist. She did not attend meeting with Mr Gilligan, but pressed Mr Campbell on purpose of the February "dodgy dossier".

Likely verdict: Supportive.

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