Officials accused of misleading MPs over Iraq abuses

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Tony Blair's government was in confusion and disarray last night after ministers were accused of misleading Parliament in their rush to disown knowledge of two damning reports on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

Tony Blair's government was in confusion and disarray last night after ministers were accused of misleading Parliament in their rush to disown knowledge of two damning reports on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

Labour backbench MPs yesterday were openly questioning the ability of Mr Blair to survive until the General Election unless he restores his authority over his beleaguered government after a disastrous 24 hours of misleading answers by senior ministers.

In the first of two humiliating retreats by the Government, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, was forced yesterday to contradict Geoff Hoon over the role of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the then senior British representative in Iraq; 24 hours earlier, the Secretary of State for Defence told the Commons that one of the reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross had gone to Sir Jeremy.

Mr Straw told MPs: "My understanding is that Sir Jeremy Greenstock did not receive it."

Last night, Mr Straw wrote to Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, saying the confusion had arisen over a telegram sent after a meeting on 26 February between the Red Cross and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to discuss the report. Mr Straw said: "It [the telegram] was signed Greenstock in the usual way. I understand Sir Jeremy Greenstock was not at the meeting." He said Sir Jeremy's legal adviser attended the meeting.

The Defence Secretary's assertion that Sir Jeremy had received the damaging report led to questions about why he had not told Mr Blair about its existence. The Independent has learned that on Monday night, an official at the Foreign Office contacted the 60-year-old former diplomat at home after he had returned from a seminar and was told he did not receive the document. Yesterday, Sir Jeremy phoned the Foreign Secretary's office after checking his records to confirm he had not seen the ICRC report.

There was further confusion as the Red Cross yesterday appeared to challenge the Government's explanation that Sir Jeremy had not read the report. A spokesman for the ICRC said that on 12 February, it had handed two copies of its report to the Coalition Provisional Authority. "In the absence of Paul Bremer, we gave the copy to his deputy," said an ICRC spokeswoman, Antonella Notari. The other copy was given to Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, the top US military officer in Iraq.

Amnesty International yesterday also accused the Armed Forces minister, Adam Ingram, of "an unfortunate lapse of memory" over his denial last week in the Commons that he had received adverse reports about the behaviour of British troops in Iraq.

Amnesty revealed it had given him a dossier of abuse and alleged killings of civilians by British soldiers in October last year and had received a letter in response from Mr Ingram. He is expected to use a Commons defence debate tomorrow to apologise for misleading MPs.

Mr Blair will face renewed criticism today in the Commons over his handling of the Iraqi debacle. The Prime Minister's official spokesman insisted officials could not tell Mr Blair about the ICRC report because it was confidential.

That line of defence was looking threadbare and will be challenged by Labour MPs, who were predicting a shock for the Government in the local and European elections on 10 June. "We are going to be stuffed, and Blair is going to be stuffed," said one former cabinet minister.

There was growing speculation that Mr Blair may stand down, after reports circulated at Westminster that he had told some journalists he may go if he felt he was an electoral liability.

Mr Blair's allies in the Cabinet are rallying behind him to fend off attacks by left-wing Labour critics. John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, is said to have grabbed the microphone at a private meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday and berated leftwingers hostile to Mr Blair. The prime minister left the meeting early.

Mr Blair is planning to fight back against his critics on Iraq by holding out the prospect of a new UN resolution by the end of the month to reassure Labour MPs, who are growing increasingly dismissive of his leadership, that the coalition is restoring order to Iraq.

The UN resolution will pave the way for a clear change of authority to an interim Iraqi government after elections in January next year; it will give the UN a lead role in advising the new authority; and it will reaffirm the role of multi-national force in Iraq, under resolution 1511, giving a fresh mandate to the continuing presence of coalition forces.

Mr Ancram said: "The demonstration of confusion at the heart of the Government is undermining confidence in what the coalition is seeking to do in Iraq."