Butler inquiry took evidence from Blix

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The Butler inquiry has taken evidence from two critics of the Government's stance on weapons of mass destruction, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, who headed international weapons inspection teams in Iraq.

The Butler inquiry has taken evidence from two critics of the Government's stance on weapons of mass destruction, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, who headed international weapons inspection teams in Iraq.

The inquiry is understood to have put particular emphasis on Tony Blair's claim that Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain uranium from Niger.

Lord Butler of Brockwell's decision to extend his inquiries to Mr Blix and Mr ElBaradei, and their staff, is seen as ominous for Downing Street. Both the men have in the past disputed British claims about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction.

The Niger claim is especially problematic for the Government, as well as MI6, which has continued to back its alleged veracity despite it being widely dismissed by, among others, the US government.

The Independent has learnt that the Butler committee has sent separate letters requesting information from Mr Blix, the chief UN arms inspector, and Mr ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Mr ElBaradei has stated publicly that, contrary to government claims: "There is no indication that Iraq has attempted to import uranium since 1990."

Downing Street is unlikely to get much comfort from Mr Blix either. He said recently about the claim, in Mr Blair's dossier, that Iraq can deploy chemical and biological weapons in 45 minutes: "The intention was to dramatise it, just as the vendors of some merchandise are trying to exaggerate the importance of what they have. But from politicians and our leaders in the Western world, I think we can expect more than that. A bit more sincerity.

"They say some WMDs can be ready to be used within 45 minutes. Well, which ones? It certainly wasn't nuclear, because the report says they were not developing nuclear, so they didn't have them. And what is meant by being 'ready'? Is it a phial of anthrax that can be tossed at somebody?

"I am very interested in the question of whether or not there were WMDs, and I am beginning to suspect there possibly were none."

Lord Butler has received submissions from Jacques Baute, who led the IAEA mission on the ground in Baghdad, and the director of the agency's Iraq Nuclear Verification Office. Mr Baute examined a set of documents supplied by the American government which purported to prove the existence of an Iraq/Niger intelligence link. At the time it was reported that the documents, which originated from a third nation, were passed to Washington by London.

It took Mr Baute and his team just a few hours to conclude that the documents were crude forgeries. Asked about the matter, Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, said they "came from other sources. It was provided in good faith to the inspectors."

A former diplomat, Joseph Wilson, visited Niger in 2002 on behalf of the CIA, and reported that there was no evidence that Saddam had sought to buy uranium from the country. George Tenet, the CIA director at the time, declared that the Niger claim was "not tenable". And in last week's damning senate report on pre-war intelligence, a memo by a senior CIA official was revealed which said: "We told Congress that the Brits have exaggerated this issue."

Mr Blair's Iraq dossier claimed Saddam "sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, despite having no active, civil nuclear programme that could require it." But the IAEA points out that it would have been impossible for Iraq to acquire uranium from Niger without this being discovered. The country's entire output at the time came from two mines controlled by a French company, and its entire output was pre-sold to France, Japan and Spain.

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