Intelligence doubts dog Australian PM

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The Independent Online

The row over intelligence information used to justify the Iraq war followed the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, to the Philippines yesterday as he embarked on a week-long Asian tour.

Mr Howard has been under intense pressure to explain precisely when he learned of doubts about the accuracy of claims that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapons programme.

Three Australian intelligence agencies have said they became aware of the doubts early this year. But all three - including the Office of National Assessments, which reports directly to the Prime Minister - claim they did not pass them to Mr Howard before he made a key speech to parliament in February outlining his reasons for joining the United States-led coalition. He used the uranium claim in his speech.

Yesterday Mr Howard denied knowingly misleading Australians about the reasons for going to war. Asked if he should apologise, he told a Melbourne radio station: "Apologise? I apologise if I mislead people. I don't accept that I knowingly misled people."

In Manila, he again defended his actions. "The idea that, because of this issue, the credibility of American and British intelligence in relation to Iraq has been blown out of the water is an idea I totally reject," he told a press conference. "The intelligence assessment that came to me was strong and firm, and if I had my time over again, I would not have behaved any differently."

Australia was quick to sign up to the "coalition of the willing", and sent 2,000 troops to Iraq. The row over the real threat posed by Iraq has been raging in Australia for months. Opposition parties have set up an inquiry to investigate what the government was told by intelligence agencies.

Mr Howard said last weekend that he did not base his decision to send troops on the discredited US intelligence. He said he had relied on the judgement of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, which was standing by the uranium claims.

For Spain, the European power that most wholeheartedly supported George Bush and Tony Blair - despite massive public opposition - the furore shaking its coalition allies remains officially a "matter of internal policy" for Washington and London.