Cook says Blair accepted before war that 45-minute claim was wrong

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Indy Politics

Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, kept a diary throughout the turbulent period leading up to war in Iraq. In it he reveals for the first time the extent of disquiet in the Cabinet and claims that Tony Blair knew Iraq had no useable weapons of mass destruction shortly before Britain joined the US-led attack on Saddam Hussein.

CABINET 'MUTINY'

At a cabinet meeting on 28 February 2002, more than a year before military action started, worries are being aired among ministers about the wisdom, and legality, of attacking Iraq.

When Mr Cook ventures that the Arab world sees Israel as more of a threat than Iraq, he provokes a round of "hear hears" from colleagues, which is "the nearest I've heard to a mutiny in the Cabinet".

On March 7, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, asks where Britain had obtained the "legal authority" to act. Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, complains: "We are in danger of being seen as close to President Bush, but without any influence over President Bush."

Mr Cook says it was the last cabinet session at which a large number of ministers spoke out against the war. "Over the next six months we were to discuss Iraq more than any other topic, but only Clare Short and I ever expressed frank doubts about the trajectory in which we were being driven."

WHERE BUSH LEADS. . .

Mr Cook characterises Mr Blair as "Sancho Panza to George Bush's Don Quixote." He writes: "It would never occur to Tony Blair that there might be more respect for a prime minister who had the courage to say 'no' to someone as powerful as the president of the US."

He says Mr Blair earlier promised President Bill Clinton that he would support US military action in Iraq if the United Nations route failed. "It would certainly have been in line with his previous practice if he had given President Bush a private assurance of British support."

Mr Cook says that in March, the Prime Minister told him he was acting as a restraining influence on the White House. He quotes Mr Blair as saying: "Left to himself, Bush would have gone to war in January. No, not January, but back in September."

WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION

Mr Cook recalls that following a private briefing on 20 February from John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, he concluded that Iraq probably did not have WMD "in the sense of weapons that could be used against large-scale civilian targets".

On 5 March, a fortnight before war began, he says he told Mr Blair of his conclusion, but added that he accepted Saddam probably had several thousand battlefield munitions that could be fired at British troops. The Prime Minister did not contradict him and even argued that these munitions were so well hidden that they could not be quickly assembled.

"I have no reason to doubt that Tony Blair believed in September 2002 that Saddam really had weapons of mass destruction ready for firing within 45 minutes. What was clear from this conversation was that he did not believe it himself in March this year," he says.

USE OF INTELLIGENCE

The September 2002 dossier that made the case for war painted a '"one-sided picture" of the intelligence information available, amounting to a "gross distortion", he says.

"Intelligence is supposed to be the evidence on which ministers reach decisions on foreign and defence policy. It is not meant to be the propaganda by which ministers sell a policy to a sceptical public," he adds.

He notes that that in the crucial Commons debate of 18 March ministers had backed off from claims Saddam could launch a WMD strike within 45 minutes, that he had rebuilt chemical weapons plants or that he had tried to buy uranium from Niger.

MISLEADING THE COMMONS

The doubt over whether the Government believed the September dossier claims six months later as it prepared to take Britain to war, raised the "gravest of political questions", he says.

"The rules of the Commons require Ministers to correct the record as soon as they are aware that they may have misled Parliament ... Should they not have told Parliament before asking the Commons to vote for war on a false prospectus?"

THE EURO

According to Mr Cook, the Prime Minister hinted at his frustration with Gordon Brown's hostility to the single currency over pre-Christmas drinks on 10 December.

"I asked him if we will have a referendum on the euro next year, and he replied: 'If it is up to me, yes. It is not a decision we can keep putting off. The longer we delay, the greater will be the penalty we will pay.'"

Mr Cook, a single currency enthusiast, joked that he would make an anti-euro speech if it might bring the Chancellor round. "Tony laughed: 'Even the Treasury officials can't find out what's going on over the economic assessment [of the five tests], never mind us here at No 10."

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