Blair finally admits it: 'We may never find WMD'

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Tony Blair admitted for the first time yesterday that weapons of mass destruction may never be found in Iraq and, in a remarkable U-turn, even suggested that Saddam Hussein may have destroyed his arsenal.

Tony Blair admitted for the first time yesterday that weapons of mass destruction may never be found in Iraq and, in a remarkable U-turn, even suggested that Saddam Hussein may have destroyed his arsenal.

The Prime Minister, who has previously dismissed the idea that Saddam's weapons had been destroyed as "palpably absurd", told a committee of MPs: "I have to accept we have not found them and we may not find them. He may have removed or hidden or even destroyed those weapons. We don't know."

Mr Blair finally made his admission after insisting since last year's conflict that weapons would eventually be discovered and that the pre-war intelligence was right. But he rejected growing demands for him to "say sorry" over the Iraq war and insisted it was right to remove Saddam, describing him as an "evil person" and a "tyrant" that the world was well rid of.

His move was seen at Westminster as a pre-emptive strike before the publication a week today of the Butler report into Britain's pre-war intelligence, which is expected to criticise the security services and the use by the Government of the material they provided. Mr Blair is expected to admit that mistakes were made ­ but to defend the decision to topple Saddam.

During a two-and-a-half hour interrogation by the Commons Liaison Committee yesterday, Mr Blair was asked whether it was a mistake to put so much emphasis on WMD rather than regime change before the war. He replied: "I say it is very important not to go to the other extreme and say: 'Because we have not found actual stockpiles of WMD, therefore he was not a threat.' " Insisting Saddam was in breach of United Nations resolutions, he said: "I was very, very confident we would find [WMD]." He added: "I genuinely believe that those weapons were there and that is why the international community came together as they did."

In America, it emerged that a senate inquiry had uncovered evidence that the CIA was told by relatives of Iraqi scientists before the war that Baghdad's weapons programmes had been abandoned. But the CIA failed to pass the information to President George Bush, according to officials.

The existence of a secret pre-war CIA operation to debrief relatives of Iraqi scientists has been uncovered by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The panel has been investigating the government's handling of pre-war intelligence on Iraq's unconventional weapons and it plans to issue a wide-ranging report this week on the first phase of its inquiry.

It is expected to contain a scathing indictment of the CIA and its leaders for failing to recognise that the evidence they had collected did not justify their assessment that Saddam had illicit weapons.

Mr Blair's remarks were welcomed by some Labour MPs but did not go far enough for his anti-war critics. Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "The Prime Minister diminishes himself and his office by not acknowledging what everyone else accepts, which is that there was no serious threat from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"When Jeremy Greenstock [the former British envoy to Iraq] is prepared to appear on television and frankly admit this, the Prime Minister just looks silly. It's time he came to terms with the reality."

Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "In the run-up to war, Tony Blair was quite clear about the threat posed by Iraq. As military operations commenced, he made clear the reason for going to war was 'to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction'. If all of these remarks were honestly meant, then the Prime Minister now owes the country a full explanation."

Mr Blair told yesterday's hearing that Britain did not have the "machinery" in place to ensure that the remaining British detainees at Guantanamo Bay would not pose a security threat if they were released. He confirmed that he had raised their cases with President Bush recently, but did not believe the US was being "unreasonable" in holding on to them until Britain could give assurances they would not be a security threat.

The Prime Minister defended the close relationship he has with President Bush, saying other countries would "give their eye teeth" for it.

THE PM'S RETREAT...

'The intelligence is clear: [Saddam] continues to believe his WMD programme is essential both for internal repression and for external aggression' 25 February 2003

'We are asked to accept that, contrary to all intelligence, Saddam decided to destroy those weapons. I say that such a claim is palpably absurd' 18 March 2003

'I don't concede at all that the intelligence was wrong. I have no doubt at all that we will find evidence of weapons of mass destruction programmes' 8 July 2003

'I have to accept that we have not found them and we may not find them. He [Saddam] may have removed or hidden or even destroyed those weapons.' 6 July 2004

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