Australia war analysis 'more moderate than US and UK reports'

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Australia's Prime Minister John Howard ordered a fresh investigation into prewar intelligence on Iraq, despite a parliamentary report today that broadly cleared his government of exaggerating the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

The parliamentary panel did issue some criticism, saying that government ministers sometimes did not mention the same caution expressed by intelligence agencies about the size of Iraq's arsenal and the speed with which it could be deployed.

The 98-page report introduced in the national Parliament on Monday said Canberra was "more moderate" than coalition partners Britain and the United States in its claims about the threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons programs before invading Iraq.

The report recommended setting up a second, independent inquiry into the performance of the intelligence agencies, something Howard immediately announced the government would do.

"On the accuracy and completeness of the government's presentation, the committee found that the presentation by the Australian government was more moderate and more measured than that of its alliance partners," said David Jull, chairman of the committee that wrote the report.

Jull is a lawmaker with Howard's government, and his committee is made up of four lawmakers from the governing party and three from the opposition Labor Party.

The report noted that Australian intelligence agencies "did not think the amounts of (weapons of mass destruction) to be large," but that presentations by government ministers "seemed to suggest large arsenals and stockpiles, endorsing the idea that Iraq was producing more weapons and that the programs were larger and more active than before the Gulf War in 1991."

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the report "vindicates the government's use of intelligence in stating the case for disarming Iraq."

But Kim Beazley, one of the committee's opposition Labor Party members, said the report showed some lawmakers did exaggerate the intelligence they were presented.

He said intelligence agencies "never ... emphatically delivered hard advice without some form of qualification attached."

"The exaggerations, the sense of immediacy, was the work of politicians outside the intelligence advice they were being presented," Beazley said in parliament.

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd also said the government had picked through the intelligence advice and used only that which suited its plans to join the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"This report is a catalogue of intelligence failure and it is a catalogue of a government cherry-picking the intelligence advice it received to suit its own political objective," Rudd told reporters.

Howard's government sent 2,000 troops to fight alongside U.S. and British troops in the invasion of Iraq and still has about 850 military personnel there. So far there have been no Australian casualties.

Presenting the report to Parliament, Jull recommended "an independent assessment of the performance of the intelligence agencies, conducted by an experienced former intelligence expert with full access to all the material."

He said the inquiry should report to the National Security Committee of Cabinet, which could then recommend possible reforms to Australian intelligence agencies.

Downer said the report should put an end to doubts over the government's assessments of the Iraqi threat.

"It is now clear to all that the government has been open and honest with the Australian people on this critical issue of national security," he said.

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