Spy chief undermines key plank of case for war

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One of the crucial claims in the Government's case for the Iraq war ­ that Saddam Hussein could threaten the West within 45 minutes with chemical and biological weapons ­ was seriously undermined at the Hutton inquiry yesterday.

John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which was in charge of compiling the Iraq weapons dossier, revealed that the alleged threat related not to long-range missiles, which could hit the West, but "battlefield mortar shells or small-calibre weaponry" that did not threaten Britain or even Iraq's neighbours.

In last September's dossier, the 45-minute claim was made alongside details of Iraq's alleged possession of al-Hussain missiles that could strike British bases in Cyprus. Ministers and officials repeatedly stressed that this meant Iraq was a direct and imminent threat to British interests.

In his report on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Andrew Gilligan had said his source believed that the 45-minute intelligence related to "warheads for [long-range] missiles". But Mr Scarlett said it was not.

The 45-minute warning related to smaller range munitions, a fact that may have caused David Kelly ­ the subject of the Hutton inquiry ­ to be in a "state of genuine confusion about what the report actually said". The disclosure by one of the most senior intelligence chiefs in Britain is the first official statement on the exact nature of the threat.

Lord Hutton himself said to Mr Scarlett that Dr Kelly had suggested the source of the 45-minute claim may have confused it with a "multiple barrelled weapon".

Weapons experts said yesterday that the normal definition of an international WMD threat would exclude battle-field mortar shells and small-calibre weaponry, even if they had chemical or biological stocks attached. Such small-calibre arms represented no threat to Britain, they said. Last night, Doug Henderson, a former armed forces minister, said it was "extraordinary" that the 45-minute claim referred to munitions rather than missiles. "The news today is that the weapons that were being referred to were quite different. They were battlefield weapons," he said on the BBC's Newsnight programme.

Today, the focus of the inquiry will switch back to how the Government treated Dr Kelly, when Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, gives testimony.

During the tense examination of Mr Scarlett yesterday, the inquiry was told the intelligence agencies had been issued with an 11th-hour appeal for more evidence to strengthen the Government's dossier.

Lord Hutton was told the agencies were asked to find more evidence of Iraqi arms programmes because No 10 wanted the dossier to be "as strong as possible". The inquiry was shown an e-mail from the Cabinet Office assessment staff on 11 September appealing for more information. It noted: "No 10, through the chairman, want the document to be as strong as possible within the bounds of the available intelligence. This is therefore a last (!) call for any items of intelligence that the agencies think can and should be included."

Mr Scarlett acknowledged that Alastair Campbell, the Government's director of communications and strategy, had asked if some of the language in the dossier could be "tightened." He also confirmed to the inquiry that he had helped Mr Campbell to prepare for his appearance before the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on 25 June and that Mr Campbell had chaired two meetings ­ on 5 and 9 September ­ on the presentation of the dossier.

But Mr Scarlett stressed that he himself had been in control of the intelligence content of the document. The former senior MI6 officer told the inquiry that the request for more information was "simply part of the work in progress". He stressed that the document had been designed to show the intelligence assessment available to ministers, and was not intended to make the case for war. "In no sense, in my mind or in the mind of the JIC, was it a document designed to make a case for anything," he said.

He insisted that there had been no interference from No 10 in the intelligence judgments in the dossier. He also said the intelligence agencies privately concluded that some Iraqi weapons could be deployed in as little as 20 minutes, rather than the more cautious estimate in the dossier.