Blair’s top spin doctor to be quizzed on Iraq role

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LONDON (AP) — Did he “sex up” the infamous intelligence dossier that made Britain’s case for war with Iraq? That is the key question for spin doctor supreme Alastair Campbell when he testifies Tuesday before the Iraq Inquiry.

The communications director for former Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to face harsh questioning about his role in preparing the controversial dossier, which claimed in 2002 that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein could have nuclear weapons within a year and could launch chemical weapons within 45 minutes.

Campbell will be among the first major figures from Blair’s inner circle to give his version of events to the Iraq Inquiry, the most wide-ranging investigation into the war thus far. The committee is expected to ask whether Campbell pressured intelligence officials to beef up the case against Saddam to bolster Blair’s case for regime change, also sought by U.S. President George W. Bush.

“The committee will ask to what degree did he play around with the intelligence and the facts to suit that policy of regime change that had already been agreed on,” said Michael Cox, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “I’m sure he’ll say no, as he’s said before. It’s crucial because the dossier provided the legal and political basis for going to war.”

He said the committee, chaired by John Chilcot, will also focus on precisely when Blair and Bush made the firm decision to invade Iraq and whether Blair “got enough back from the Americans” in exchange for his support of the military option.

Cox cautioned that the committee, which has generally been easygoing in its questioning, may have a difficult time with Campbell, who is known for his sharp tongue and political skills.

The Iraq Inquiry started hearing testimony in late November. Critics of the invasion had long demanded an investigation into whether the war, which has been extremely unpopular in Britain, was illegal. Many were disappointed when it was announced that the inquiry had no power to apportion blame or establish criminal or civil liability.

Blair is expected to testify in late January or early February. He has said many times since leaving office more than two years ago that he is confident his decisions were correct. Until his appearance, observers expect Campbell to provide the most insight into the preparation of the dossier.

“A good spokesman is inside their boss’ head,” said Michael Williams, a foreign policy specialist at Royal Holloway University in London. “The committee is concerned with how the dossier was sexed up, and the person responsible is Alastair Campbell. He was Blair’s right hand man, more than just a spokesman.”

The term “sexed up” entered Britain’s political lexicon after the BBC reported in 2003 that Campbell had ordered the document be toughened — or “sexed up” — to buttress the case for regime change.

Journalist Chris Ames, who maintains the Iraqi Inquiry Digest Web site, wrote in The Guardian newspaper Monday that new evidence suggests that, at Campbell’s urging, the time it would take for Saddam to develop a nuclear weapon was cut in half to coincide with the American estimate.

He said the timing of the changes suggests they were made to mirror claims made by Bush during a September 2002 speech to the United Nations.

Ames told The Associated Press that Campbell was “instrumental” in making the case for war.

“He commissioned the 2002 and 2003 dossiers, most of which turned out to be false,” Ames said. “He should be questioned very closely.”

In the past, Campbell has steadfastly denied distorting the intelligence to fit Blair’s goals.