Blair on the offensive over missing WMD

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Tony Blair appeared yesterday to scale down his claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) at the start of the Iraq war in March.

The Prime Minister insisted that evidence proving that Iraq had possessed the weapons would be found, but hinted that he believed they may have been destroyed or concealed.

In a two-and-a-half grilling by senior MPs, he rejected the finding by the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee on Monday that the "jury is still out" on whether Iraq had WMD. He said: "I believe we did the right thing [in Iraq]. I stand 100 per cent by it. For me the jury is not out. It's not out at all."

Mr Blair repeatedly used the past tense when describing Iraq's weapons. He told the Commons liaison committee that the Government's dossier published in September was right "at the time". On the dossier's claim that chemical and biological weapons could be deployed in 45 minutes, he said: "I certainly would want to reiterate the validity of that intelligence as we received it last September."

Mr Blair's carefully chosen words gave some MPs the impression that the Government was changing its line because weapons might not be found - only evidence that they had been destroyed. He said: "I have absolutely no doubt at all that we will find evidence of weapons of mass destruction programmes ... Saddam, once he realised that weapons inspectors were coming back in, was then going to engage in an active programme of concealment ... We believe, from the information we are getting now, [that] is precisely what he did."

Mr Blair urged his critics to wait for the Iraqi Survey Group, which is searching for WMD in Iraq, to complete the work it had only just begun.

Ian Gibson, a Labour member of the committee, said after the hearing: "The justification for war will be much harder to get across if [WMD] are not found shortly. If he has got evidence, I wish he would show us it. I look into his eyes and I think he's trying to say that they do know something. He was very, very adamant that they are going to find them. So let's hope he's right or else I'm afraid his credibility is going to be in tatters."

THE DODGY DOSSIER

Mr Blair refused to apologise for inadvertently "misrepresenting" the dossier issued in February as "intelligence" when large parts of it were culled from an article in a Middle East journal based on a PhD thesis. He suggested yesterday that he had already apologised in a written Commons answer in February after the plagiarism came to light. However, this stopped short of the formal apology demanded by the Tories and Liberal Democrats.

Mr Blair said: " I refute any suggestion that we misled either Parliament or the people totally. I think we made the right case and did the right thing." He went on: "One part of that should have been sourced to a reference work. It wasn't. When we discovered it wasn't sourced to a reference work, we made that clear." He insisted the information in the dossier was correct and "largely based" on intelligence. This contradicted Donald Anderson, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, who said on Monday that only 10 per cent of the material in the dossier was intelligence.

THE SEPTEMBER DOSSIER

Mr Blair said he entirely stood by the dossier on Iraq's weapons, issued last September, which included the "45-minute" claim. In a sign that he wanted to cool the dispute with the BBC, Mr Blair did not repeat No 10's demand for the BBC to retract its claim that the dossier was "sexed up".

He said: "On that central allegation that myself or anyone else inserted information into last September's dossier against the wishes of the intelligence agencies, that allegation was totally false. And I don't know anyone who now believes that allegation to be true."

THE NIGER CONNECTION

Mr Blair stood by the claim in the September dossier that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger to make nuclear weapons. He insisted the claim was based on different intelligence to the forged documents which have been dismissed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Mr Blair said: "This is terribly important, because this has again been elevated into something that really is not warranted by the actual facts. There was an historic link between Niger and Iraq. In the 1980s Iraq purchased somewhere in the region of 200 tons of uranium from Niger. The evidence that we had that the Iraqi government had gone back to try to purchase further amounts of uranium from Niger did not come from these so-called forged documents. They came from separate intelligence. In so far as our intelligence services are concerned, they stand by that."

THE DECISION TO GO TO WAR

Mr Blair dismissed claims by Clare Short, the former international development secretary, that he secretly agreed with President George Bush last September to go to war in Iraq. He said: "The idea that we had some pre-arranged agreement that there was to be conflict, that the whole UN process was a charade, is completely and totally untrue."

RECONSTRUCTION OF IRAQ

Mr Blair dismissed criticism that the US and UK had not put enough effort into drawing up plans for post-war Iraq. He said: "I don't actually accept that there has been no planning ... the test will be, what does Iraq look like in a year's time?"

Highlighting the scale of Saddam's brutality, Mr Blair told the committee: "Already in the mass graves that we have discovered we believe that there are the remains of perhaps as many as 300,000 people ... When we contemplate the nature of this regime it is probably beyond our previous estimation of just how evil it was."

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