Pressure on Tony Blair to justify the intelligence basis for war in Iraq increased yesterday after Hans Blix said the Government made a "fundamental mistake" in claiming Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.
The former United Nations chief weapons inspector told The Independent on Sunday it was "highly unlikely" the Iraqi dictator could have deployed them in that time.
Mr Blix reignited the debate over the Government's September dossier on Iraq's arsenal, accusing Britain of "over-interpreting" evidence of Saddam's arsenal. The dossier claimed that some of Iraq's WMD could be deployed within 45 minutes of an order, an allegation that suggested the weapons could be delivered to units at short notice.
The charge was a plank of British and American assertions that Iraq was an imminent threat to its neighbours and the West. Mr Blix said: "I don't know exactly how they calculated this figure of 45 minutes in the dossier. That seems pretty far off the mark to me." Asked whether Mr Blair had relied on flawed intelligence information, Mr Blix said: "They over-interpreted the information they had."
Mr Blix, who retired this month as head of Unmovic, the UN weapons inspectorate, also questioned whether fully operational weapons would be uncovered. He said it was theoretically possible to switch instantly from producing vaccines to producing biological weapons. But he warned: "A weapon is ... also about a means of delivery and it seems highly unlikely that there were any means of delivering biological or chemical weapons in 45 minutes."
The Prime Minister, who is preparing for talks with President George Bush in Washington on Thursday, insisted yesterday that he had been right to topple Saddam.
Mr Blair said: "Nobody was in any doubt of the threat posed by Saddam ... When we see the Iraqi people making at last the first tentative steps towards self-government announced today and when the United Nations representative is already talking about 300,000 people in mass graves, then I hope that at least one thing that we can all agree on, the world is more secure, Iraq is a better place."
Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, insisted Britain had reliable evidenceSaddam sought uranium from Niger. He told GMTV yesterday: "We maintain it still to be true because we had intelligence from other intelligence services, which we were not able to share with the Americans."
Meanwhile, news emerged yesterday that, on the CIA's advice, Mr Bush had removed the suspect claims about an Iraq-Niger link from a speech he made in October, three months before they featured in his State of the Union address. While George Tenet, the director of the CIA, has apologised for the inclusion of the disputed intelligence in the January address, he indicated he was pressed by the White House to include the details.
Condoleezza Rice, the US national security adviser, said on Fox News Sunday: "The statement that [Mr Bush] made was indeed accurate. The British Government did say that ... There were statements of this kind in the National Intelligence Estimate [a classified document compiled by US agencies]."
Later, on CBS's Face the Nation, she said: "The President took the nation to war to depose a bloody tyrant who had defied the world for 12 years, who was building a weapons of mass destruction program and had weapons of mass destruction."
A series of polls in The Washington Post and Newsweek revealed that a growing number of Americans believed they were misled on Iraq's weapons.