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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 February, 2004, 14:11 GMT
Analysis: Lib Dems snub inquiry

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

If Tony Blair was hoping the inquiry into Saddam's WMD would calm the arguments over his justifications for war on Iraq he has been sorely disappointed.

Charles Kennedy
Kennedy will boycott inquiry
In a controversial move, the Liberal Democrats have refused to sit on the committee, claiming its terms of reference are so narrowly drawn as to make it virtually irrelevant.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy is dismayed that the prime minister has, in effect, barred the new inquiry from looking at the political decisions that led him into taking Britain to war.

And his decision to keep out of it after hours of horse trading with Downing Street is his way of suggesting the entire inquiry has had its hands tied before it has even been launched.

All the committee can now do, in his view, is to investigate where the intelligence services got it wrong about Saddam's WMD.

Pull out

By refusing to take part, he undoubtedly believes it allows him to remain outside, throwing rocks at the government throughout.

And he clearly believes that, by agreeing to sit on the committee, the Tories are limiting their room for manoeuvre and are, in effect, condemning themselves to be party to a flawed inquiry and its subsequent conclusions.

Tony Blair
Blair accused of tying committee's hands
Some in his own party are said to disagree with his position, believing it would have been better to be on the committee while reserving the right to criticise or pull out at a later stage.

By turning his back on it, he has deprived his party of a powerful voice, they argue.

But this was a calculated decision aimed at leaving the Liberal Democrats as the leaders of the war critics and free to criticise whenever they feel fit.

Flawed or mishandled

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in echoing the prime minister's words earlier in the day, appeared to add to the Lib Dems' concerns.

He told MPs there were only two questions that needed answering over the failure to find any WMD in Iraq.

Either the intelligence was flawed, or it was mishandled.

He told the Commons, to shouts of disagreement, that Lord Hutton had already cleared the government of mishandling the intelligence.

Lord Hutton
Hutton inquiry had limited role
The new inquiry, therefore, only needed investigate whether the intelligence was flawed.

By definition that rules out any questions about the handling of the intelligence available - questions many believe the Hutton inquiry did not address because Lord Hutton also believed they lay outside his terms of reference.

The prime minister disagrees with that view - arguing Lord Hutton has cleared him, his ministers, his officials and intelligence chiefs of any falsifying or misuse of intelligence.

So, although the inquiry is intended to answer the remaining questions about the basis on which the UK went to war, it is clear the controversy will continue to rumble on.

It is no wonder the prime minister wants the new inquiry to report back by the summer - leaving a decent gap before the widely expected general election in 2005.




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