Downing Street was facing an embarrassing rift last night after its claims of a "marriage" of evil between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida were contradicted by senior military officers.
They disputed an assertion by Tony Blair's spokesman that the Baghdad regime was supplying Osama bin Laden's terrorists with chemical and biological weapons.
Amid deep misgivings among senior military officers at the prospect of a new Gulf war, the Government stepped up its rhetoric against President Saddam. However, Number 10's claims of a close relationship between the two contradicts its own previous position that there was no evidence of a link between al-Qa'ida and Baghdad. It will further anger Labour backbenchers who fear Tony Blair is preparing the ground to join a US-led attack on Iraq.
The Downing Street statement came a day after Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, caused widespread consternation by insisting the US and Britain would not need a United Nations mandate to launch military strikes on Iraq.
Mr Blair's spokesman maintained that Baghdad was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and this may be passed on to terrorists. "Given what we know about al-Qa'ida's interest in the material, we have to have concerns about a possible marriage between those who wish to acquire it and those who have it," he said.
But this was immediately contradicted by senior military officials who said they have seen no credible evidence that the Iraqi regime is passing such weapons to al-Qa'ida.
Underlying concern about military action in the Gulf, senior officers also pointed out that they have been given no guidance about what would be needed from them in the event of war. They warned of the acute problem of the military being overstretched with British forces deployed in a number of conflict zones, including Afghanistan.
A senior source said: "We are not aware of evidence, intelligence or otherwise, that the Iraqi government or its agencies are passing on weapons of mass destruction to al- Qa'ida. Nor have we seen any credible evidence linking the Iraqi government to the September 11 attacks."
This was the second time over a few days that a Downing Street claim about terrorists and chemical and biological weapons has been denied by the military. On Friday, Downing Street officials briefed a number of news organisations that US forces had uncovered a biological weapons laboratory in eastern Afghanistan. But the claim was contradicted by the Pentagon, which said: "We have received no specific intelligence on that kind of development or capability".
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, insisted yesterday that the lesson of 11 September was that Britain had to "stand up to bullies like Saddam."
Mr Blair is due to visit President George Bush in Texas next week in what is seen by many as preparation for a Gulf war in the autumn.Reuse content