British Prime Minister Tony Blair today declared himself "100 percent behind the evidence" that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, as accusations mounted in Britain for a second week that Blair and his government misled the public about such evidence.
Blair called the accusations "completely and totally false." He added: "I simply ask the people, just have a little patience" while troops continue the search for weapons.
Blair spoke in this French Alpine ski resort, where he is attending a summit of the heads of the Group of Eight industrial countries. The meeting has been dominated by discussion of the Iraq war and the deep divisions it caused among G-8 member countries.
Blair, President Bush and their top aides repeatedly said before the war that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, including stockpiles of prohibited anthrax and other chemicals as well as a nascent nuclear program. These charges were offered to the public as the prime justification for going to war.
But since the fall of Baghdad on April 9, the nearly 300,000 U.S. and British troops in Iraq have found no such weapons. Troops did find two vehicles that U.S. intelligence officials have said were probably intended as mobile labs for biological weapons, but no traces of germ weapons were found in the vehicles.
Media reports last week that British intelligence officials believed that Blair's office had distorted their findings to build a case for war have helped drive the current controversy. Blair is being attacked by a range of politicians, including members of his own ruling Labor Party.
Clare Short, a former international development secretary who resigned in protest of Blair's Iraq policy, said the prime minister "duped" the British people into supporting the war based on false intelligence. She accused Blair and Bush of agreeing as early as last September on the date for the Iraq war, whether or not the U.N. Security Council gave its backing.
"The claim the stuff was weaponized and might be used in 45 minutes was part of the secret commitment to a date, which meant everything had to be hurried along," she told BBC One's Politics Show.
Today, Blair dismissed her accusation. "The idea, as apparently Clare Short is saying, that I made some secret agreement with George Bush last September that we would invade Iraq in any event, at a particular time, is also completely and totally untrue," he said.
Robin Cook, another former minister who quit in protest, said the prime minister had committed troops to combat in Iraq "on the basis of a mistake." Echoing Short, Cook told Radio 4's World This Weekend he was especially bothered by Blair's warning that the arms could be launched within 45 minutes. Cook has called for a parliamentary inquiry.
The opposition Conservative Party, which largely backed Blair on the Iraq war, said it was giving "serious consideration" to calling for an official investigation, according to news agency reports from London.
In Evian today, Blair challenged his critics to produce firm evidence that intelligence reports had been doctored.
Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, also publicly defended the intelligence findings. British newspapers continue to run the story on their front pages. Many papers that supported Blair's actions during the war are now questioning his justification.
The Daily Telegraph said: "It is about the gravest accusation that can be made in politics. Tony Blair stands charged, in effect, with committing British troops on the basis of a lie. . . . Mr. Blair had good reasons to be worried about the menace posed by Saddam; but his obsession with presentation has gravely damaged that case.
"Even if our forces were now to unearth evidence of a major chemical or biological weapons programme in Iraq, many people in this country -- let alone in the Arab world -- would assume it had been planted. Such are the wages of spin."
Earlier in his term, the Telegraph continued, Blair might have shrugged off such accusations with ease. "But the past six years," it said, "have seen Mr. Blair squander that most priceless of political assets, the benefit of the doubt."
Special correspondent Adi Bloom in London contributed to this report.