Blair defiant on WMD intelligence

In a crucial parliamentary debate about last week’s Butler report, which found that much of the pre-war intelligence about Iraq’s weapons was unreliable, Blair was unrepentant.

“I still think we made the right decision,” he said of the US-led war on Iraq, strongly supported by the prime minister despite heavy opposition at home.

An inquiry team led by former top civil servant Lord Robin Butler cleared Blair last Wednesday of any deliberate wrongdoing but cast doubt on the information about Iraq’s illegal weapons.

Blair has since come under pressure to explain how he interpreted this intelligence as showing that Baghdad posed an immediate threat.

He remained defiant during the debate, saying the intelligence had been overwhelming at the time.

“The intelligence really left little doubt about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction,” he told parliament.

The information “made it absolutely clear that we were entirely entitled on the basis of that to go back to the United Nations and say there was a continuous threat from Saddam Hussein,” he said.

The prime minister vehemently defended his decision to go to war, saying Britain had entered into it “with a clear conscience and a strong heart”.

“Removing Saddam was not a war crime, it was an act of liberation for the Iraqi people,” he said.

Blair did make some minor concessions, announcing that he would change the way the government dealt with intelligence following criticisms in the Butler report.

The Joint Intelligence Committee would not be used to draw up any future documents setting out the case for a war, while all future documents would also include any caveats expressed by intelligence sources.

Blair’s Labour Party has suffered a string of electoral losses in past months, partly due to a war backlash. Opinion polls put him on track to lead Labour to a third general election victory but his trust ratings continue to suffer.

Palestinian leaders in uneasy truce

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie has reached an uneasy truce with leader Yasser Arafat, refusing to retract his resignation but agreeing to stay in his post for the moment.

“There has been no breakthrough,” minister Qadura Fares said after Qurie and his cabinet held an emergency meeting with Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“Abu Alaa is prepared to continue in his position for the time being but only until the formation of a new government,” he said.

Qurie submitted his resignation on Saturday after a breakdown in law and order in the Gaza Strip, sparked by anger at Arafat’s appointment of his own cousin as security chief.

Arafat was later forced into an embarrassing U-turn over the appointment, on Monday reinstating the former security chief to the position, but Qurie refused to withdraw his resignation.

International pressure is growing on Arafat with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urging him to work with Qurie.

“Chairman Arafat should really take the time to listen to the prime minister and other members of his leadership, and take the necessary steps to bring the situation under control,” Annan said.

The stand-off between the Palestinian leaders is expected to continue in parliament on Wednesday when a committee tasked with investigating security in the territories delivers a report.

Meanwhile, a Palestinian MP, and well-known critic of Yasser Arafat, Nabil Amr, was wounded outside his home in Ramallah on Tuesday night by armed Palestinians who apparently shot him in the leg.

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