Blair told to refuse his US honour
ALISON HARDIE POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT
TONY Blair was last night under intense pressure from the Labour benches to turn down a prestigious Congressional Gold Medal from George Bush, the United States president, as the political fall-out from the Iraq conflict continued to bedevil the Prime Minister.
One back-bench Labour MP said accepting the honour would be like "taking an award from Satan" as speculation mounted at Westminster that Mr Blair would have to refuse the medal.
The decision to award the Prime Minister the highest accolade the US can confer on a foreigner has been approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but no formal ceremony will take place when Mr Blair visits Washington on Thursday.
As rumours swirled around Westminster, President Bush continued to face post-Iraq troubles of his own. Last night, the CIA director, George Tenet, accepted responsibility for the false claim that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium from Africa.
Mr Tenet said his agency should have removed the accusations - originally passed to the US by British intelligence - from the president's State of the Union address.
He added: "The president had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound. These 16 words should never have been included."
Mr Bush said in his January speech: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Mr Tenet said it was correct to say the British were reporting that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa, but "this did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and the CIA should have ensured that it was removed".
The traumas faced by the war allies are set to overshadow next week's meeting. There are very real fears at Westminster that the medal award could provoke a domestic backlash against Mr Blair. The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "There will not be any presentation on this trip. That process is still going through in the US, it is a process point in terms of Congress."
The medal is the highest accolade the US can confer and it is unusual for a foreigner to be awarded it. The last British politician to receive the medal was Sir Winston Churchill after the Second World War.
However, there have been mutterings of discontent among Labour back-benchers this week as fury grew over Mr Blair's widely-briefed acceptance of the award following the Iraq war as questions remain unanswered about the credibility of the reasons for the conflict.
There is huge disquiet among the Labour ranks at Mr Blair's continuing support for, and close ties to, Mr Bush as the reasons for war become ever more opaque. One rebel Labour MP said: "As far as many of us are concerned, if Tony takes that medal it would be like taking an award from Satan."
The Washington visit is the first leg of an around-the-world diplomatic tour by Mr Blair which will see him visit China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. He is under pressure to raise directly with Mr Bush the case of two British al-Qaeda suspects being held by the US in Guantanamo Bay.
Downing Street last night confirmed their possible repatriation is among a "range of issues" already being discussed by the government and the US authorities.
More than 200 MPs have signed a parliamentary motion calling for the two men - Feroz Abbasi and Moazzam Begg - to be returned amid fears they will not get a fair trial.
Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said Mr Blair should use his influence with Mr Bush, especially after Britain supported the US over Iraq.
He added: "If it does matter for something, I think a special relationship or that degree of influence has to be a two-way street. What we seem to be encountering at this stage is very much one-way traffic."
Mr Blair also came under renewed attack from Clare Short, who quit earlier this year as international development secretary over Iraq. She delivered her harshest judgment of Mr Blair yet and called on him to go.
She said: "I think the best solution for Tony would be if he planned to move."
In an interview to be broadcast by GMTV's Sunday Programme, Ms Short said she feared Mr Blair would try to hang on. "There is lots and lots of muttering going on because the trade unions are very unhappy ... and of course the degree of trust in the country has gone down remarkably."