John Reid was ridiculed yesterday for comparing the search for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction to the hunt for the money stolen in the Great Train Robbery.
The Leader of the House of Commons likened Saddam to the train robber Ronnie Biggs. "I believe there are weapons of mass destruction there. I know we haven't found them yet, but because we haven't found them yet no more means that there was not a threat than not finding the money stolen from the Great Train Robbery means that Ronnie Biggs was innocent," he insisted.
Interviewed on BBC Radio Four's Today programme, Mr Reid accused the BBC of having an "obsession" with Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and angrily insisted that the link between the Iraqi dictator and the train robber was "not a silly one in principle".
Mr Reid said the war "was not contingent on finding further chemical weapons in any given period any more than the guilt and process, sentencing and incarceration of Ronnie Biggs was dependent on finding the money that he stole. This is the whole point."
He launched a furious defence of the Government the day after Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, threw into doubt the legal and political basis for war in Iraq by declaring that finding Iraq's WMD was "not crucially important".
Mr Reid's comments were attacked as "extraordinary" by critics of the war, who were sceptical that operational nuclear, chemical or biological weapons would be found in Iraq. Labour MPs who voted to back the war were increasingly anxious at the failure to uncover clear evidence of WMD, despite repeated assertions by Tony Blair and Mr Straw before the war that they could be deployed "within 45 minutes".
One Blair loyalist said: "It's a very difficult case to make. I wish we would find some weapons, but I'm not optimistic now. We should have argued on the basis of a regime change."
Colin Challen, Labour MP for Morley and Rothwell, who softened his opposition to war to abstain in the Commons vote on military action, said: "It wasn't on the basis of finding some clapped-out old chemical mobile laboratory that we were prepared to send our forces into battle."
Malcolm Savidge, Labour MP for Aberdeen North, said Mr Reid's comments were "extraordinary". He said: "I found it worrying that Jack Straw should be claiming that it does not matter whether we find weapons of mass destruction. I have found throughout recent weeks the cavalier attitude to the truth shown by government ministers over this matter is deeply disturbing."
Ian Gibson, Labour chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, said: "People feel they have been conned. I was never convinced that there was anything there anyway. Ronnie Biggs is a false analogy."
Lindsay Hoyle, a Labour MP who backed the Government over the war, has joined calls for an inquiry into claims that Iraq has such weapons.
Mr Reid was challenged in the Commons by the Labour backbencher David Chaytor, who demanded a full day's debate on the hunt for WMD.
The former foreign secretary Robin Cook also entered the row, calling on Britain and America to allow United Nations weapons inspectors back into Iraq to find Saddam's "fabled" weapons of mass destruction. He told the BBC: "If it was so compelling, so urgent, that we had to go in and disarm these weapons that posed such a big threat to us that it justified a pre-emptive strike, it is rather curious that they can't find these weapons."
The hunt for WMD that the US and Britain claim exist inside Iraq is being led by the US Army's 75th Exploitation Task Force. For some months before the war, this group was preparing its teams of biologists, chemists, arms-treaty enforcers, nuclear operators, computer and document experts and special forces troops to lead the search for chemical, biological and nuclear arms.
The team is winding up its work and most of its members will return to the US next month, having found no conclusive proof of any WMD let alone the hundreds of tons of anthrax spores, mustard gas and botulism phials that Britain and America insisted presented a global threat.
The work of searching for the weapons will be taken over by a new Iraq Survey Group. The Bush administration has claimed this is physically a larger team but officials on the ground say they are reducing the number of weapons inspectors from their ranks because of the lack of work.
Documents seen by The Washington Post that relate to the transition of the search teams show that the site survey teams – the advance scouts of the arms search – will reduce from six to two their complement of experts in missile technology and biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.
A little-known nuclear special-operations group from the Defence Threat Reduction Agency, called the Direct Support Team, has already sent home one third of its original complement, and plans to cut the remaining team by half.
LABOUR MPS VOICE CONCERN OVER FAILURE TO FIND IRAQ'S SMOKING GUN
Pro-war, anti-war and wavering Labour MPs all warned yesterday that it is crucial for the Government that weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq to convince a sceptical public that military action against Saddam Hussein was justified.
Brian Donohoe, Labour MP for Cunninghame South, abstained on a rebel amendment over Iraq, but backed the Government's main motion: "I would have thought by now they would have been establishing some evidence to point them in the direction of weapons of mass destruction. That is very important, not only to parliamentarians but to constituents."
Colin Challen, Labour MP for Morley and Rothwell, abstained in the vote on Iraq: "This will return to haunt us. It's the boy who cried wolf. The evidence has been so scant as to be almost non-existent."
Frank Roy, Labour MP for Motherwell and Wishaw, voted for the Government over Iraq and called on ministers to step up efforts to find Saddam's arsenal: "I have no doubt that weapons will be found, but there are people out here who are quite sceptical. WMD is a real issue out there on the streets among people I talk to."
David Hinchliffe, Labour chairman of the Commons Health Select committee, opposed the war in Iraq: "For those who supported the Government, the issue of WMD was of fundamental importance. Inevitably, the longer it goes on the more people are concerned."
David Chaytor, Labour MP for Bury North, voted against the Government: "It's of critical importance to find something, but the issue is what exactly we do find. Whatever is found is highly unlikely to be any kind of threat. The Government is preparing to manipulate our expectations down just as they manipulated expectations upward before the war."Reuse content