Cook first to be quizzed on weapons

The Prime Minister has agreed to appear before the 'Super Committee' of senior MPs
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Indy Politics

Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, will be the first of a series of witnesses appearing this week before a televised Commons inquiry into Iraq's missing weapons of mass destruction.

The Foreign Affairs committee, which holds its hearings in public, will spend three days examining witnesses, with more hearings next week, so that they can have a report ready for publication early in July.

The committee held a long private meeting last week with the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, after Downing Street had turned down a request that Tony Blair and his director of communications, Alastair Campbell give evidence before it.

Mr Blair refused on the grounds that the parliamentary custom is for the Foreign Secretary or one of his ministers to answer for the government in front of the committee. The Prime Minister has agreed to make another appearance before the so-called "Super Committee" of the senior MPs who chair all the Commons committees. It is expected that he will be questioned then about Iraq's weapons.

Mr Straw has agreed to appear twice in front of the Foreign Affairs committee, once in public this week, and then at a secret session on Friday week, when he will take questions on sensitive issues involving the intelligence services. The committee will also question Terry Taylor, a former Unscom inspector, and Tom Inch, who has advised the Government on chemical weapons.

Their hearings come against the background of new polling evidence that 58 per cent of the public suspects that the US and British governments exaggerated the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to win public support for a war.

The Populus poll in yesterday's Times also showed that a third of voters say that the Iraq war has lowered their trust in Mr Blair, and 85 per cent believe that Iraq either destroyed its weapons or hid them so well that they might never be found.

The Foreign Affairs committee will examine reports, repeatedly denied by Mr Blair, that Downing Street "sexed-up" intelligence reports on Iraq's weaponry. It will also look into the claim made in a government dossier last September that Iraq had weapons primed to go off at 45 minutes' notice.

No weapons of mass destruction have been discovered since the Iraq war, but Mr Blair has confidently forecast on several occasions that evidence of a weapons programme will eventually be found. He has also promised that it will be published.