Blair: Capture could lead Allies to WMD

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The capture of Saddam Hussein could finally lead to the discovery of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Tony Blair said last night.

Asked if Saddam might reveal details of his weapons programme, the Prime Minister replied: "There's obviously that possibility there but I think in any event we have got to carry on doing the work we are doing.

"The Iraq Survey Group has already found massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories, workings by scientists, plans to develop long-range ballistic missiles. Frankly, these things weren't being developed unless they were developed for a purpose."

Mr Blair was not referring to a new discovery but to the 1,200-strong group's interim report published in October, in which it said it had found WMD-related programme activities but no stocks of chemical or biological weapons.

In pre-Christmas interviews for the British Forces Broadcasting Service and the BBC World Service's Arabic network, Mr Blair said: "I'm confident that when the Iraq Survey Group has done its work we will find what's happened to those weapons because that he had them ... there is no doubt.

"I think it will take us time, but I just say to people continually, when a country with a ruler like Saddam tries to hide what it is doing, in a large country like Iraq it is relatively easy to hide it, but we have got to carry on until we find it. Because frankly until we find it, [there are] obviously all sorts of issues about justification for war, but it is also important to find it for reasons of making sure that we secure the peace."

But the former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix said yesterday it was becoming "increasingly clear" that Saddam Hussein's regime did not have any illegal weapons of mass destruction.

"My guess is that there are no weapons of mass destruction left," said Mr Blix, who headed the team of UN inspectors that searched Iraq for more than three months before the war without making any significant finds. "I think many of the things that were said [about Iraq having them] were not sufficiently well based." Mr Blix said he thought most of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed in 1991.

Responding to Mr Blix, Mr Blair said: "I don't think it's surprising that we will have to look for them. That he had them is beyond doubt - I mean he used them. He used them against Iran, he used them against his own people."

Describing the capture of the former Iraqi dictator as "fantastic news", he said: "It's a great day when people realise they have been liberated from Saddam."

But he warned there would still be dangers ahead for British and other troops in Iraq: "In the short term, these terrorists, foreign terrorists and Saddam sympathisers, will carry on. But it's a lot harder for them not to have someone around whom they can coalesce. So it's a big moment."

Asked where Saddam should be tried, Mr Blair replied: "Providing they have a proper and fair and independent judicial system then I think it's for [the Iraqis] themselves to decide." He said international tribunals were used only where the country in which crimes were committed was not capable of trying the alleged perpetrator.

Mr Blair hoped Saddam's capture would be seized on as a chance for reconciliation. He said: "I hope that we use it as a chance to hasten the moment that we can say to the Iraqi people, 'the old days are over'. There's a new Iraq emerging. We can reach out and reconcile the Sunni population to the new Iraq that's emerging."