WMD failures have damaged allies' credibility, say MPs

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The failure of Britain and America to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has damaged the credibility of the war on international terrorism, MPs said yesterday.

The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said the war in Iraq may have increased the threat from al-Qa'ida and other international terrorists. Anglo-American forces in Iraq now faced a dangerous alliance of foreign fighters and Saddam loyalists, and British troops might have to remain in Iraq for several years, the MPs said.

Its report said: "We welcome the capture of Saddam Hussein, but conclude that the continued failure of the coalition to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has damaged the credibility of the US and the United Kingdom in their conduct of the war against terrorism. The war in Iraq has possibly made terrorist attacks against British nationals and British interests more likely in the short term."

The all-party committee said that ordinary Iraqis had a growing sense of alienation from the occupying powers, but a swift transfer of power to an Iraqi government that enjoyed the support of Arab and Muslim states would reduce the threat and help to stabilise the Middle East.

The committee was split on the conclusion that the credibility of the coalition partners had been damaged by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, with three Labour MPs voting against. The conclusion was approved after one Labour member, Andrew Mackinlay, voted with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats for its inclusion.

The committee said it was too soon to say what impact the capture of Saddam would have on the situation inside Iraq but urged ministers not to reduce Britain's military presence after the handover of power to a transitional authority, scheduled for June.

The MPs said: "Subject to the wishes of the new Iraqi government, we recommend that the Government and its coalition partners scale down their armed forces only as Iraqi forces demonstrate their capacity to establish and maintain security."

The committee also said in in its report that it was "neither justifiable nor acceptable" for Israel to build its controversial security fence within the occupied territories. The MPs said it gave "rise to fears that Israel intends to annex this land".

They said: "We are deeply concerned by Israel's maintenance and expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied territories and its construction of a security fence on Palestinian land, and we conclude that these policies constitute a severe impediment to efforts to secure a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian authority and to the creation of a viable Palestinian state."

* The new chairman of the BBC will be chosen "freely, fairly and with the best interests of the BBC at heart," Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, promised MPs. A panel of Privy Councillors from the three major political parties would advise Dame Rennie Fritchie, the commissioner for public appointments, and act as a "double lock" to guarantee impartiality, she said. "We all want a strong BBC that is independent of government and anyone who cares about politics, standards in public life and the quality of our media knows how much the BBC matters."

She faced claims that the BBC had been left with a sense of fear and intimidation. Julie Kirkbride, the shadow Culture Secretary, said people were rightly concerned that the BBC had been systematically bullied by the Government. She said: 'It makes it all the more important that this process of appointing a new chairman is free, fair and impartial."

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat culture spokesman, asked Ms Jowell to confirm "that it will never be necessary again for the new governors to have to deal with the sort of blitzkrieg attack that was launched on the BBC by 10 Downing Street over its coverage of the Iraq war".

Roger Gale, Tory MP for North Thanet and a former BBC producer, asked: "Can you guarantee that the next chairman and director general will not be subject to political interference from a mendacious, foul-mouthed spokesman from Downing Street?"

Chris Smith, a former culture secretary, said it should not have been necessary for either man to resign. He said: "The primary task facing all of us now is to reassert the robust independence of the BBC."

David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, asked: "Will my right honourable friend resist those who want to use the present opportunity to put their own agenda, namely that the BBC should be downsized or even privatised?"