Blair moves to heal rifts over Iraq war

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TONY BLAIR was today trying to heal the rift in Europe over the war in Iraq as the Pentagon dispatched more than 1400 experts to the hunt for Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The Prime Minister was at the meeting of world leaders to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of St Petersburg, amid claims Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the United States’ Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed doubts before the war about intelligence reports over Iraqi weapons.

The allegations, which have caused embarrassment on both sides of the Atlantic, have been vehemently denied by the Foreign Office.

The meeting in St Petersburg is considered vital to healing the wounds of war with Russian president Vladimir Putin and brings together around 40 world leaders, including US President George W Bush and prominent opponents of war, president Jacques Chirac of France and German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

It comes as the US administration boosts resources in Iraq as the search for WMD continues unabated.

Mr Blair flew into St Petersburg with his wife Cherie last night from Poland, where he made an impassioned plea for Europe and the US to mend fences at a "crucial moment" for their relationship. He said: "It is a moment either for reconciliation or for drifting apart. The real question is can we recognise a sufficient convergence of interest to rebuild this transatlantic alliance and strengthen it? I believe we can."

US concerns over terrorism and weapons of mass destruction should be shared by the EU, said Mr Blair.

"We must support the US in this and where there is disagreement [in Europe] with the US, we should manage the disagreement carefully as between allies, not let it explode into a diplomatic dogfight.

"The US, in its turn, can recognise that the European dilemma is that of wanting to be America’s partner, not its servant."

Mr Putin is holding two separate meetings with the former Soviet republics and the European Union, and tomorrow will meet Mr Bush for the first time since Moscow publicly opposed war in Iraq.

The event offers leaders the opportunity to restore personal and international relations from the low-point they reached when Britain and the US decided to go to war without a fresh resolution from the UN Security Council.

The gathering will give Mr Blair the opportunity to smooth over the snub he received in his last meeting with Mr Putin, when the Russian president was openly dismissive of his claims about the existence of WMD in Iraq.

Mr Bush has made a point in recent days of speaking about his good relations with Mr Putin, and used an interview on Russian TV to scoff at suggestions the US was considering attacks on Iran or Syria.

The gathering of world leaders comes in the wake of claims in documents reportedly circulating in diplomatic circles which purport to be a transcript of a private conversation between Mr Straw and Mr Powell before the key UN Security Council meeting of February 5, when Mr Powell presented what he claimed was clear evidence Iraq was concealing banned weapons.

According to a "diplomatic source", the transcript records Mr Straw voicing concern that assertions being made by Mr Blair and Mr Bush about Saddam Hussein’s arsenals could not be proved.

The Foreign Office today dismissed the report as "simply untrue" and insisted "no such meeting took place".

A spokeswoman said: "The Foreign Secretary has always been clear of the strength of the evidence against Iraq in respect of WMD - much of it in UN sources - and has often referred to this."

The report follows claims - denied by Mr Blair - that a UK intelligence dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was spiced up on the orders of Downing Street to make it more compelling. And it comes amid growing disquiet among Labour backbenchers about the failure to find conclusive proof of the existence of chemical, biological or nuclear programmes in Iraq, seven weeks after the fall of Baghdad.

There was also outage today as the assistant in a photo processing shop spoke of "feeling sick" when she first came across pictures allegedly showing Iraqi prisoners of war being "tortured".

Kelly Tilford, 22, uncovered the photographs when she was checking that the film a soldier had handed in for processing had developed properly.

One of the images allegedly showed an Iraqi PoW gagged and bound, hanging in netting from a fork-lift truck driven by a British soldier.

Ms Tilford said: "I felt sick when I looked at the pictures. They were grim.

I showed them to a colleague and she called the police straight away."

The Ministry of Defence has confirmed a soldier was in military custody while the Special Investigations Branch of the Royal Military Police launched an inquiry.

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