The war to topple Saddam Hussein may have damaged the campaign against international terrorism by driving Muslims into the arms of al-Qa'ida, an all-party committee of MPs said yesterday.
The Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee said al-Qa'ida remained a "significant threat" to Britain, after hearing that the terrorist network may still have the loyalty of more than 17,000 militants in up to 60 countries.
In a report that raises questions about an important part of the justification for war, MPs said the campaign in Iraq might have "enhanced the appeal of al-Qa'ida to Muslims living in the Gulf region and elsewhere".
Tony Blair has repeatedly used the threat posed by Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and the danger that they might end up in the hands of terrorists to justify the war.
But the all-party committee's unanimous report raised a string of fresh questions yesterday about the reasons for going to war. MPs said that the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction had not been reduced, two years after the start of the war on terror.
They said: "We cannot conclude that these threats have diminished significantly, in spite of regime change in Iraq and progress in capturing some of the leaders of al-Qa'ida. Those that remain at large, including Osama bin Laden, retain the capacity to lead and guide the organisation towards further atrocities. Al-Qa'ida has dangerously large numbers of foot soldiers and has demonstrated an alarming capacity to regenerate itself.
"In spite of some notable progress, al-Qa'ida continues to pose a substantial threat to British citizens in the United Kingdom and abroad." The network had access to the funds needed for attacks, it said.
The committee heard evidence from Paul Wilkinson, professor of International Relations at St Andrews University, who said conservative estimates suggested that al-Qa'ida had at least 17,000 trained terrorists. He said: "As a movement it has more trained militants with expertise that can be used in terrorist operations than any previous international terrorist movement we have known."
The committee said it was "deeply regrettable" that American forces had not restored law and order in Iraq more quickly.
Nato, the UN Security Council and the European Union had been seriously damaged by disputes over the war. The episode represented "one of the most severe crises in the history of Nato" and the row in Europe "raised serious questions" about the possibility of a European common foreign policy.
It was "especially crucial'' to restore the work of the UN Security Council. It would have been "highly desirable" to secure a second UN resolution before the war. But the divisions in the UN were the result of "genuinely different assessments of the nature and extent" of the threat posed by Iraq.
The committee said the Government should "make it a priority to work towards restoring the cohesion of the UK's international partnerships, better to face the daunting challenges of the continuing 'war against terrorism'."
The MPs removed an important paragraph from the draft report saying that they had not seen evidence to contradict the Attorney General's legal justification for the war. But they stopped short of questioning the basis of the conflict in international law.
The committee urged the Government to ensure that British terrorism suspects held in Guantanamo Bay were tried according to internationally recognised judicial standards.
It said: "In a number of areas, including ensuring the fair trial of prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay, the Government must ensure that its close relationship with the US administration brings substantive benefits to the United Kingdom and its citizens."
The former Tory chancellor Kenneth Clarke told the BBC: "I think it is likely that the American and British invasion of Iraq and the occupation of the country will boost al-Qa'ida."
Tony Lloyd, a former foreign minister, said: "When the world had the argument about whether there was a practical or moral justification for war, most of the world said there was not. That did not shore up the international coalition against terrorism."
But Bill Rammell, a Foreign Office minister, said the war was based on Iraq's failure to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and fears about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He added: "I would refute any allegation that taking military action against Iraq took our eye off the ball in terms of the wider battle against terrorism."
THE MAIN POINTS
* The war in Iraq may have "impeded the campaign against al-Qa'ida" and "enhanced the appeal" of the terror network to Muslims in the Gulf.
* Al-Qa'ida may command 17,000 trained terrorists in 60 countries.
* Two years after the start of the "war on terrorism", the threats facing Britain have not diminished.
* The breakdown of law and order in Baghdad is "deeply regrettable".
* It would have been "highly desirable" to pass a second UN Security Council resolution before the war.
* British detainees at Guantanamo Bay should face trials according to internationally recognised standards. Britain should ensure its special relationship with the US "brings substantive benefits to the UK and its citizens".