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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 June, 2003, 11:28 GMT 12:28 UK
How the Iraq row spiralled

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

When former minister Robin Cook gave the first evidence to the Commons committee investigating the handling of the war on Iraq, he levelled some serious allegations at the government.

Prime minister Tony Blair and others had not presented the full picture to Parliament or the country in the run-up to the war, he said.

And intelligence had been used to support an already-decided policy, rather than to form that policy, he claimed.

By any measure that was pretty serious stuff.

It was delivered in Mr Cook's characteristically forensic manner. And he made it clear he did not doubt the good faith of the prime minister.

But it was no less serious and challenging for the government and Tony Blair for that.

Tony Blair engaged in an "honourable deception" to encourage MPs and the public to back him, Clare Short said

Ex-minister Clare Short followed through with allegations that the prime minister had decided to go to war on Saddam Hussein long before the prime minister has admitted.

He engaged in an "honourable deception" to encourage MPs and the public to back him, she said.

Another serious charge which has been flatly denied by Downing Street.

Unprecedented row

At the heart of both these evidence sessions was the suggestion that the government was so determined to attack Iraq that it was selective in its presentation of the evidence against Saddam.

However, at the end of this two week inquiry - which also saw Foreign Secretary Jack Straw giving evidence - the issue has turned into an unprecedented and highly-charged row between the government and the BBC over who is telling the truth.

When Mr Campbell gave his evidence to the committee last week, the immediate reaction amongst many... was that he had launched a calculated attempt to divert attention

The prime minister's director of communications, Alastair Campbell, has angrily accused the BBC of lying in its claims over alleged "sexing up" of the case against Saddam.

The BBC has hit back, standing by its story and accusing Mr Campbell of running a personal vendetta against journalist Andrew Gilligan and of deploying intimidatory tactics.

When Mr Campbell gave his evidence to the committee last week, the immediate reaction amongst many in Westminster - both journalists and politicians - was that he had "done an Ali."

What they meant was that he had launched a calculated attempt to divert attention away from those deeply serious allegations by Ms Short and, more particularly, Mr Cook.

Accuracy insistence

Others did, however, believe Mr Campbell had got a point and few doubted the passion of his performance both at the committee and, later, in another extraordinary TV appearance.

What no one wanted to see though was for the entire inquiry to be overshadowed by the row with the BBC.

And while there at first appeared to be a real chance of that happening it now looks much less likely.

Attention may indeed be concentrating on the sensational bust-up between the government and the BBC.

But the central dispute in that row is still over the way information on Saddam and his weapons capabilities was presented to parliament and the public in the lead-up to the war.

The central dispute in that row is still over the way information on Saddam and his weapons capabilities was presented to parliament and the public in the lead-up to the war

The government has admitted it was a mistake to include a plagiarised and altered magazine article into the so-called dodgy dossier of evidence against Saddam.

Mr Campbell has apologised for that while, at the same time, insisting everything in the document is absolutely accurate.

He has also insisted that claims about Saddam's ability to deploy weapons within 45 minutes - contained in the previous, more weighty document - were not added by Downing Street against intelligence sources wishes.

And the prime minister, the foreign secretary, Mr Campbell and the Downing Street official spokesmen have repeatedly insisted everything in that document is also accurate and truthful.

Findings awaited

The stakes are extremely high for both sides and it is hard to see how this can be resolved without major damage to one side or the other.

Much now hangs on the findings of the foreign affairs select committee.

The stakes are extremely high for both sides and it is hard to see how this can be resolved without major damage to one side or the other

And again, it is widely hoped in Westminster that whatever may be decided in the Campbell and BBC row, that is not allowed to detract from the committee's wider findings on the pre-war conduct of the government.

It may not be that simple, of course. There is a separate inquiry being carried out entirely in private by the security and intelligence committee, which reports directly to Tony Blair who has the power to amend its findings.

What is feared is that the two committees either fail to come to conclusions that will allow a definitive resolution of the row or that they contradict each other.

That would almost certainly lead to more powerful demands for a full judicial inquiry. This extraordinary affair has some way to run yet.




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