Cook and Short face cabinet backlash as PM insists Saddam posed threat

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Tony Blair led a Cabinet backlash yesterday against claims by Clare Short and Robin Cook that ministers had exaggerated MI6 warnings about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

Mr Cook said ministers deployed selective intelligence to bolster the case for war while Ms Short claimed the Prime Minister used "half-truths and exaggerations" in the run-up to military action.

But Mr Blair told MPs yesterday that the dossier on Iraq's arsenal published last September "described absolutely accurately the position of the Government".

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, also entered the row, angrily denying claims made by their former colleagues.

Mr Blair said the Government's position was that "indeed Saddam Hussein was a threat to his region and the wider world".

"I always made it clear that the issue was not whether he was about to launch an immediate strike on Britain," he added. "The issue was whether he posed a threat to his region and the wider world."

He was challenged in the Commons by Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, over the testimony by Ms Short and Mr Cook, who demanded a "proper independent inquiry" into the affair.

But giving evidence on the second day of a parliamentary inquiry into the decision to go to war, Dame Pauline Neville Jones, the former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, warned about possible failings in intelligence.

She told the Commons Foreign Affairs committee: "I think it is so extraordinary not yet to have found any weapons of mass destruction that I do think the questions have to be asked... for reasons nothing to do with the integrity of the people involved... that the intelligence was somehow off-beam."

Terence Taylor, a former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, told the committee: "From the information available from UN sources alone it would not have been a safe assessment to conclude that Iraq did not pose a serious risk to its neighbours and to the wider world from its nuclear, biological and chemical capabilities."

Earlier Mr Straw vehemently denied Ms Short's claims that the Prime Minister had sealed a deal to go to war as early as September, despite ongoing negotiations in the UN. He said: "It was not the case that a fixed decision for war was taken at an early stage. We were prepared to take 'yes' for an answer from Saddam Hussein."

Mr Blunkett accused Mr Cook of using out-of-date information. He told the BBC: "He will have seen the intelligence made available to all members of the Cabinet. That isn't the same thing as having access to the leading members of MI6."