We were right to go to war, insists Blair

The Prime Minister today defended his decision to go to war against Iraq, insisting intelligence at the time left "little doubt" about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

Challenged by former Cabinet minister Clare Short, who quit her post over the conflict, Mr Blair said confronted with the choice of backing away or making sure he was incapable of developing WMD: "I still think we made the right decision."

Opening a debate after Lord Butler's report pointed up "flaws" in the intelligence on Iraq, Mr Blair announced that any future presentation of intelligence would separate the Joint Intelligence Committee assessment and Government case.

It would also "import any JIC caveats into it," he told a crowded Commons, adding: "We accept those conclusions and will act upon them."

He denied suggestions that by omitting the caveats in the Government's dossier ahead of the conflict ministers had set out to deceive people.

With Mr Blair's style of conducting government also under fire in Lord Butler's report, Mr Blair also announced changes in the way meetings would be held.

Before the war, he said, meetings were held with an informal group involving the Foreign and Defence Secretaries, the Chief of Defence Staff, the Head of the Secret Intelligence Service and the chairman of the JIC.

In any future situation such a group would operate "formally as an ad hoc committee of Cabinet."

The SIS had also appointed a senior officer to "work through" the findings and recommendations of the Butler review.

Mr Blair said: "The intelligence ... really left little doubt about Saddam and WMD. That was the issue."

It also made it "absolutely clear that we were entirely entitled, on the basis of that, to go back to the UN and say there was a continuing threat from Saddam Hussein."

The Prime Minister was repeatedly challenged over concerns raised about the intelligence by Dr Brian Jones, the former head of nuclear, biological and chemical intelligence analysis at the Defence Intelligence Staff.

Mr Blair said he thought it followed naturally from the Butler inquiry that notes of dissent his would be seen by the JIC.

Much had been made of the fact that one JIC assessment said intelligence on Iraq was "sporadic and patchy".

But the full assessment went on to say it was clear Iraq continued to pursue a policy of acquiring WMD and their delivery means.

"That is the key judgment I received," he said. They stated that Iraq had a chemical and biological weapons capability that Saddam was prepared to use.

"That assessment that we were getting from the JIC, to hear some of the talk now we would think it was a startling assessment – an assessment people found odd at the time.

"Actually that was the view of the entire international community then expressed in resolution 1441."

There was no doubt if people read the JIC assessments that they would conclude that Saddam Hussein was a "WMD threat and had intent, programmes and actual weapons".

Ms Short asked why the weapons inspectors were not allowed to finish their job and what information the Prime Minister had to decide to reject that course.

Mr Blair said the dossier was not the basis to go to war, but the basis to go to the UN.

Resolution 1441 accepted "on behalf of the whole international community that he was a WMD threat and had to be dealt with," while insisting there had to be full compliance with the inspectors.

"The plain fact is there wasn't. I agree it would have been better to have let the inspectors have more time, provided that we had a UN resolution that laid down a clear ultimatum to Saddam that if he didn't comply with the benchmarks ... action would follow.

"But the problem is that it was made clear by some other countries that they wouldn't accept any resolution with an ultimatum in it."

Ms Short, intervening again, said former weapons inspector Hans Blix made clear in his book that the majority of the Security Council were willing to have "benchmarks" and a deadline, but not willing to back a resolution that meant Britain and the US would decide whether or not it had been adhered to.

"You threw away the possibility of united international action on the request for automaticity," she told Mr Blair.

The Prime Minister said France would not accept any ultimatum. Without an ultimatum there wasn't any real chance of believing Saddam would comply.

"In the end we were faced with the situation ... we've laid down resolution 1441, we know he is not properly complying, we can't get another resolution with an ultimatum in it. So what do we do? We either back away or we decide that we are going, this time, to make sure that he is incapable in the future of developing WMD, that he had every intention of doing.

"I still think we made the right decision on it."

Liberal Democrat Mike Hancock (Portsmouth S) asked whether Mr Blair had been advised by any senior intelligence official that he should be "cautious" over the interpretation he was putting on the available intelligence.

Mr Blair told him: "The intelligence community throughout, like virtually most intelligence services in the world, certainly did believe that he had WMD capability and intent."

The Prime Minister told MPs that Saddam had only cooperated in the past under threat of military action and had engaged the international community in an "elaborate dance".

He complained that, faced with the failure to find WMD in Iraq, critics had now gone to the "opposite extreme" and said there was no threat at all.

"That is not the case: that is absolutely clear.

"Some of the intelligence remains entirely valid in this respect. It was absolutely clear that he had every intention to carry on developing these weapons, that he was procuring materials to do so."

Mr Blair accused Tory leader Michael Howard of "shabby opportunism" after they exchanged verbal blows in their first direct confrontation of the debate.

"The idea that you or the shadow foreign secretary were in two minds about Iraq, weren't quite sure, sat around scratching your heads wondering whether it was a threat or not and then were persuaded by me that it was is absolutely absurd," he said.

"To be fair, the previous leader of the opposition (Iain Duncan Smith) was actually warning, in my view rightly, of the threat long before I was.

"I simply say to you that it's time you realised this kind of shabby opportunism is not the solution to your problem, it is your problem.

"The fact is that people will respect people who were honestly for the war and they will respect people who were honestly against the war. What they will not respect is a politician who says he is for and against the war in the same newspaper article."

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