By ANDREW GRICE and BEN RUSSELL in London and ANDREW BUNCOME in Washington

Tony Blair has performed a hasty U-turn and announced an inquiry into the intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction on which he took Britain to war in Iraq.

After months of resisting demands for an investigation despite the failure to find any WMD, the Prime Minister climbed down today, the same day that President George Bush confirmed that an independent commission would look into the US intelligence on Saddam's arsenal.

In Britain, the inquiry is expected to be conducted by a committee of MPs and peers, possibly with an independent chairman.

His officials denied that Mr Blair has been bounced into the move by Washington's change of heart. They insisted he had always intended to ask "valid" questions about intelligence after Lord Hutton's inquiry into the death of David Kelly.

But the timing of British investigation may have been advanced by President Bush's decision and there was confusion over the precise details last night as MPs waited for a formal statement setting out the terms of reference.

Although British ministers said that intelligence reports did show Saddam posed a real and current threat, there were immediate warnings by MPs that the intelligence chiefs must not be scape-goated for a political decision to go to war.

The Prime Minister has stone-walled in the face of growing all-party demands for an inquiry, saying that people should wait until the Iraq Survey Group, which is hunting for weapons, produces its final report. But with no deadline set, his increasingly untenable line was washed away at the weekend when officials in Washington made clear that the US President was to abandon his opposition to an inquiry.

Mr Blair's official spokesman said that what had changed was that the Hutton report, like the Intelligence and Security Committee, had cleared the Government of allegations that it interfered with, falsified or hyped the intelligence on WMD.

"That allows us to address - hopefully in a more rational way, a more rational context - the perfectly valid question that people have asked about WMD," he said.

The inquiry is expected to look both at the quality of the intelligence and the assessments based on it. But the Tories and Liberal Democrats said it must also consider the Government's handling of it.

Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary who resigned from the cabinet over the war, said the new inquiry must be public and completed quickly.

"The British people are entitled to know why we went to war on a false prospectus," he said.

"It would be grotesque if the intellgence agencies were now to carry the can for what was ultimately a political decision."

Some MPs expressed fears that Mr Blair would now "hide" behind the new inquiry for months, just as he had refused to be drawn on the Kelly affair while Lord Hutton's investigation was underway.

However, the Prime Minister is likely to want to see it completed well before the election -- even if the outcome is unpalatable -- rather than in the run-up to polling day.

President Bush is expected to announce within days the make-up of a panel to investigate so-called intelligence failures. Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser under George Bush Senior, has been tipped to head the inquiry.

But Ray McGovern, a retired CIA analyst of 27 experience, described the move as "bullshit". He said: "The commission will be just like the [September 11] commission and it will not report back until after the [Presidential] election. It will not look into the politicisation of intelligence."

In a report yesterday, the Foreign Affairs Committee said the US-led coalition had lost credibility over the failure to find WMD in Iraq and may have increased the risk of terror strikes.

Andrew Mackinlay, a Labour member of the committee, said: "I think clearly there is a crisis of confidence now, both in Parliament and outside, about both the competence of our security and intelligence services and the analysis that was given of the raw intelligence."

Sir John Stanley, a former Conservative defence minister, said: "It appears increasingly improbable that these weapons of mass destruction are going to be found. That is a very, very serious question of credibility."

John Maples, another Conservative committee member, said: "It's terribly imporant that the public can believe intelligence assessments like this in the future."

Donald Anderson, the committee's chairman, added: "Any inquiry needs to be credible. It needs to have people who know the intelligence."

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, who tabled a Commons motion calling for an inquiry yesterday, said: "Everybody now recognises that something went wrong over the intelligence."

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "As soon as it was made clear that President Bush has agreed to an inquiry into these issues in the United States, our Government's refusal to do so became untenable."


Herald Feature: Iraq

Iraq links and resources