Blair claim 'separate from Iraq dossier'

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The senior spymaster who drew up the Government's now notorious Iraq dossier today distanced himself from Tony Blair's claim that intelligence had established "beyond doubt" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Sir John Scarlett, who was the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee - the senior UK intelligence body - said he regarded Mr Blair's foreword to the dossier as "quite separate" from the rest of the document.

Giving evidence to the official inquiry into the war he said that he did not believe that it was for him to alter the Prime Minister's wording, which he described as an "overtly political" statement.

"I saw the foreword as quite separate from the text of the dossier itself. The foreword was an overtly political statement by the Prime Minister so it was his wording and his comments throughout," he said.

"I didn't see it as something that I would change. My memory of the time is that this was quite clearly something that the Prime Minister wrote."

Sir John acknowledged, with hindsight, that it would have been better if the now infamous claim that Saddam had weapons that could be deployed within 45 minutes did not refer to ballistic missiles.

But he insisted that it had never been his intention to mislead.

"There was absolutely no conscious intention to manipulate the language or obfuscate or create a misunderstanding as to what they might refer to," he said.

Sir John said the dossier, which was published by Mr Blair in September 2002 - six months before the invasion - had been drawn up against a background of strengthening intelligence about Saddam's WMD capabilities.

He described a JIC meeting on 4 September in which what was described as "reliable and authoritative" new intelligence about Iraq's chemical and biological weapons was discussed.

"In the view of the committee that intelligence was sufficiently authoritative to firm up whether or not Iraq did currently possess chemical and biological agents," he said.

As a result, he said, the Cabinet Office assessments staff - who draft JIC reports to ministers - were instructed to "firm up" their judgment in a paper which was issued five days later.

Sir John, who subsequently went on to become Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service MI6, also disclosed how two separate intelligence reports came in the final days before the war, casting doubt on whether Saddam would be able to use chemical or biological weapons.

The first, which came in on 7 March - 13 days before the invasion - said Iraq had no missiles which could reach Israel and none which could carry germ or biological weapons.

It added that the Iraqi leadership had ordered the dismantlement of its Al Hussein ballistic missiles, in order to avoid detection, although they could be quickly reassembled.

The Ministry of Defence's Defence Intelligence Staff noted that while it was possible they could be reassembled in one or two days, it could take longer.

A further report then came in on 17 March saying that Iraq's chemical weapons had been disassembled and dispersed and would be difficult to reassemble.

No order had been issued by Saddam to reassemble them and he had not asked about chemical weapons.

Sir John said intelligence was discussed by the JIC on 19 March - the eve of the invasion - and a report was issued which was available to ministers.

"I was certainly working absolutely on the basis that these updates were being read carefully," he said. "The intelligence reports went through to the Prime Minister and to senior ministers."

However, he stressed that the assessment that Iraq had useable chemical and biological warfare capabilities which could be delivered by artillery, missiles and possibly unmanned aerial drones had not changed.