Lies and consequences: Clare Short accuses Blair of misleading Britain over case for war

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Tony Blair deliberately misled Parliament and the public over Saddam Hussein's weapons in an attempt to justify the war in Iraq, the former cabinet minister Clare Short claims in her new book.

Tony Blair deliberately misled Parliament and the public over Saddam Hussein's weapons in an attempt to justify the war in Iraq, the former cabinet minister Clare Short claims in her new book.

Ms Short, who saw the detailed intelligence reports on Iraq's arsenal, does not blame the security services for the failure to find WMD but criticises the "spin" put on their findings by Downing Street. Her severe criticism will add to the pressure on the Prime Minister, who has apologised for the intelligence reports but refuses to admit he took Britain to war on a false prospectus.

Mr Blair faced a fresh Iraq crisis last night as the British aid chief being held hostage was shown in a new videotape pleading tearfully with the Prime Minister not to send troops to Baghdad. Margaret Hassan, director of Care International in Iraq, wept as she said she did not want to die like the beheaded engineer, Ken Bigley.

She said: "These might be my last hours. Please help me. Please, the British people, ask Mr Blair to take the troops out of Iraq, and not to bring them here to Baghdad."

Ms Short's allegation against Mr Blair's integrity is made in her book being serialised in The Independent. The former minister says she saw the intelligence reports on Iraq's alleged arsenal as International Development Secretary.

In An Honourable Deception?, Ms Short alleges that Mr Blair deliberately misled the country - a charge which would, if proven, force him to resign. Rejecting the findings of the Butler inquiry that the Prime Minister acted in good faith, she says: "I am afraid it is clear that the Prime Minister did knowingly mislead."

Ms Short, who met intelligence chiefs and received written briefings from them, says that "they never suggested something new had happened that created a risk that had to be dealt with urgently". She writes: "Our agencies, who told me they had much better information from Iraq than did the US, were clear that Saddam Hussein was dedicated to having WMD and was hiding material from the UN, but the exaggeration of the immediacy of the threat came from the political spin put on the intelligence and not from the intelligence itself."

At the same time as "media spin" suggested there was a high risk from Iraq's weapons, Ministry of Defence intelligence experts were saying that their use was "unlikely". MI6 told her on the eve of war that they were "extremely unlikely" to be used.

Ms Short, who resigned from the Cabinet after the war, claims that even some Blair loyalists had doubts on the timing of the war. Her diary reveals a discussion in the Cabinet in which Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary at the time, and Estelle Morris, the then Education Secretary, asked the "why now?" question, saying: "Why him [Saddam]? What about the Palestinians? Palestinians came up repeatedly and United Nations."

She suggests that Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, had doubts about Mr Blair's "shoulder-to-shoulder" support for President George Bush. Her diary records: "I asked Jack Straw if he trusted TB not to go with the US outside the UN - he said no, but he was working on it. I had a chat with GB - he stressed UN and Palestinians."

The book accuses Mr Blair of taking Britain to war on a "pre-ordained timetable" which he had already agreed with Mr Bush while denying publicly that any decision had been made.

Ms Short says that Sir Andrew Turnbull, the Cabinet Secretary, told her after the war that the decision had been taken at least seven months earlier. When she complained that the Cabinet had taken no decisions on Iraq, she claims he replied "that there was no point because the decision to go to war had been taken in August [2002], if not earlier". She claims Sir Andrew told her "that Blair had given his commitment to be totally with the US in August or before".

She discloses that Gordon Brown told her in September 2002 "that Number 10 had already asked Geoff Hoon [the Defence Secretary] to make 20,000 troops available".

The former minister says there were two "massive failures" in Iraq: the rush to war and "the almost criminally irresponsible failure to prepare for the situation after an inevitably speedy victory".

Ms Short's revelations emerged as Mr Blair faced a fresh claim of misleading the Commons over the decision to send British troops to reinforce American forces for the imminent assault on Fallujah.

The Prime Minister told MPs earlier this week that the Black Watch would be "home for Christmas". But yesterday the Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Michael Walker, said other British troops are likely to stay in the American-controlled area of Iraq into the new year.

MPs claimed this had "blown apart" the assurances that it would be a limited deployment, and raised fears that Britain will get sucked into the war as the violence intensifies in the run-up to the January elections in Iraq.

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