MPs challenge Blair over Niger uranium claim

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The Government came under pressure yesterday to explain why it is refusing to abandon its controversial claim that Saddam Hussein tried to obtain uranium from Africa to make nuclear weapons.

MPs challenged ministers to justify their claim that they had several sources to back up their allegation. It was dismissed by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) in March because it was based on fake documents purporting to show that Iraq tried to buy substantial quantities of uranium from Niger.

Writing in The Independent today, Robin Cook says Tony Blair's refusal to admit the Government's claim was wrong in the Commons on Wednesday "really does lack credibility". He says: "The background documents were comprehensibly exploded as crude forgeries three months ago. Yet the Prime Minister could not bring himself to say he had been wrong. Instead he insisted on the need for more time to assess the intelligence."

The former foreign secretary warns: "The Government will not put this particular headache behind them until they face reality and admit that the claims they made about Saddam's weapons have turned out to be wrong.''

In the House of Commons yesterday, Paul Tyler, the Liberal Democrat who shadows the Leader of the House, called for a government statement replying to Mr Cook's call to set the record straight.

The Labour MP Lynne Jones urged Mr Blair to explain why the IAEA rejected the allegation that Saddam tried to import uranium from Niger even though the Government passed information from its other sources to the agency and to the United Nations.

She asked the Prime Minister in a letter: "Can you please confirm that all the information on which you have based your assessment has been passed to Unmovic [The UN disarmament team] and the IAEA? If this is the case, is the Government saying that Dr al- Baradei [the IAEA head] and Dr Blix [the UN chief weapons inspector] have been deliberately misleading the Security Council and the public by failing to mention the existence of the more secure information that the British Government has provided them?"

Mr Blair replied: "Information was passed to the UN inspection teams from a number of sources ... the documents referred to by Dr al-Baradei were not supplied by the UK. We remain confident in our assessment that Iraq sought to procure substantial quantities of uranium from Africa."

The row over whether the Government pressured the security services to "sex up" its dossier on WMD deepened last night when the BBC claimed the document was returned to intelligence chiefs at least six times for changes.

A source close to British intelligence told the BBC that Downing Street returned draft versions of the dossier to the Joint Intelligence Committee "six to eight times". He said Mr Blair was involved in the process at one point. But Number 10 insisted no pressure had been put on the intelligence services to change the document.

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