Anti-war MPs give Blair no respite over WMD hunt

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair's delight at the capture of Saddam Hussein was tempered yesterday when Labour MPs warned that it had not changed the fundamental flaws in the legal and moral case for the Iraq war.

Several MPs warned that the Government would come under increasing pressure to find hard evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq now that its former dictator was behind bars.

While Saddam's arrest appeared to swing US public opinion behind the war, Mr Blair found that MPs who opposed the war were in no mood to tone down criticisms of his actions. Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister, said: "I don't think this makes a difference for us because the war was about WMD and the threat from them. It might make a difference in America where the war was personalised.

"They said they would find weapons immediately after the war. I doubt he has in his memory banks the location of all his weapons. But if they have him under lock and key and they can still not find his weapons it will show that the whole thing was a sham."

In a letter to Mr Blair, Graham Allen, a former government whip, warned: "With Saddam a captive, the world will now expect these weapons to be found. They represent his only bargaining counter with the Allies and he can expect only a short time to use it. If Saddam does not within the next month or two offer some evidence which leads to a discovery of WMD, the world will draw the reasonable inference that he never had any. If that happens, I hope that the Government will accept this conclusion too."

Doug Henderson, a former armed forces minister, added: "If he did have WMD he won't say where they are. From a British point of view, that is the key issue. Parliament voted for the war on the basis that the WMD were a threat to us and our friends, not on the basis of getting rid of Saddam."

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, warned: "Euphoria at capturing Saddam cannot be allowed to distract from the reality on the ground in Iraq. The country is dangerously unstable. Saddam was clearly in no position to direct those who are carrying out the current acts of violence. The coalition must focus even more acutely on finding a realistic settlement. It must resist a temptation to start thinking about an exit strategy."

Mr Blair did not mention WMD when he came to report on Saddam's capture to the Commons yesterday.. He told Parliament: "The celebrations on the streets of Baghdad, Basra and all over Iraq show once and for all how delighted the Iraqi people are that Saddam's rule is now history."

Although the Prime Minister said a great deal had been achieved in Iraq, he admitted there was still "a massive amount" to do. He told MPs: "The terrorists and Saddam's sympathisers will continue and, though small in number and in support, their terrorist tactics will still require vigilance, dedication and determination. But the hope of a new Iraq is now clear and evident to all and the final victory will be the Iraqi people's."

Mr Blair said that while Britain opposed the option of the death penalty, the issue of Saddam's trial should be left to be determined by the Iraqi people alone. He said that Saddam was being treated as a prisoner of war and must face a "proper, independent and fair process".

Malcolm Savidge, Labour MP for Aberdeen North, said: "We are all pleased when a brutal dictator is brought down, but I don't think this changes the arguments for going to war which were about the supposed threat from weapons of mass destruction. The evidence does not justify it and what we have seen is the extent of the dangers of a policy which I hope does not happen again."

But David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, said the capture of Saddam was "a victory for humanity itself", while Ann Clwyd, Mr Blair's human rights envoy to Iraq, said: "He has got a lot to answer for and I hope for the relatives of those who were executed and tortured and disappeared, who lie in the mass graves, I hope those people get some satisfaction from hearing Saddam on trial."

Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, announced yesterday he was sending 660 troops to Iraq, to replace forces brought back after their tour of duty earlier this autumn. An infantry battalion will be sent to the British zone in southern Iraq while two platoons of military police will help train Iraqi security forces.