Whitehall took protection from troops as Blair used bio threat to justify war

Shortage of vital equipment put Iraq's supposed target at risk
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Indy Politics

The Government removed chemical and biological warfare protection from British troops in Cyprus while using Saddam Hussein's alleged threat to the bases on the island as one of the prime justifications for invading Iraq, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Downing Street declared in its first weapons dossier last September that the Iraqi regime was concealing missiles that could be armed with chemical and biological warheads and had the range to hit Cyprus, Turkey and Greece. The report on Iraq's alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction stated the missiles "could be used with conventional, chemical or biological warheads and are capable of reaching a number of countries in the region including Cyprus".

The danger to British forces is highlighted in another passage, which said Saddam Hussein "has constructed a new engine test stand for the development of missiles capable of reaching the UK sovereign base area of Cyprus and Nato members (Greece and Turkey)". Furthermore, said the report, the weapons could be armed and fired in 45 minutes, thus highlighting the supposed imminence of a catastrophic attack.

But in January, with the prospect of war looming, the Ministry of Defence ordered the removal of up to 7,000 anti-chemical and biological warfare injection kits from Cyprus to the troops in the Gulf because they had run out of supplies.

The injection kits, known as "combi pens" (combined antidotes including three drugs) are the first line of defence against chemical attacks. Taking them away left the personnel in Cyprus, supposedly under threat, without vital emergency treatment.

A defence source said: "There was a big shortfall in supplies and there was not the time to manufacture more. So we hunted around for where the stocks were and it was decided to move them from Cyprus. It was, of course, ironic in the light of how the danger to Cyprus had been presented, and there was a certain amount of consternation at the MoD.

"In the event, of course, no one, including those in theatre. needed to use WMD protection and there is now a huge amount of scepticism about the whole issue among the forces."

The threat to Cyprus had swayed a number of wavering Labour backbenchers to back the war. It was also emphasised when intelligence services gave individual briefings to ministers unsure about the war.

Ministers and officials stressed the sheer number of British citizens who could be in danger. The forces in Cyprus included 2,169 from the Army, 1,129 from the RAF, 27 from the Navy and 420 working for the UN. They are accompanied by 400 civilians and 4,800 dependents. In addition 3,000 servicemen train on the island each year, and tourist resorts attract hundreds of thousands more from Britain.

In a foreword to the September report, Tony Blair stated: "The threat posed to international peace and security, when weapons of mass destruction are in the hands of a brutal and aggressive regime like Saddam's, is real. Unless we face up to the threat we place at risk the lives and prosperity of our people."

Unlike a second report, the notorious "dodgy dossier" produced in January, the September document was published with the approval of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which includes the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, the Security Service, MI5 and Defence Intelligence.

The information in the report, including the threat to Cyprus and the "45 minutes" scenario, was supposedly based on current intelligence. Defence officials point out, however, that large parts of it were over 18 months old and already in the public domain. For example, the diagram that shows Cyprus under threat from Iraqi missiles is identical to a Pentagon briefing paper "Proliferation: Threat and Response" published in January 2001. The format used to show the alleged range of al-Samoud, al-Hussein and al-Abbas missiles in the Downing Street dossier is identical to the Pentagon one.

The acceleration of the Iraqi ballistic missile programme, which posed such a threat to Cyprus, Greece Turkey and all the countries of the Middle East, was portrayed by Downing Street as a British intelligence discovery which showed the urgency of taking military action against Saddam. But this was part of a CIA report to the US Congress in Autumn 2000.