Saddam could have a nuclear bomb in five years, says Straw

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Iraq could develop a crude nuclear bomb within five years if its weapons programme is allowed to continue, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, warned last night.

In a briefing paper handed to Labour backbenchers, he warned that Iraq could also resume production of its chemical and biological weapons. Mr Straw presented the briefing to Labour backbenchers at a meeting last night designed to allay fears about possible US-led military strikes aimed at overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

The paper warns: "If Iraq's weapons programmes remain unchecked, Iraq could redevelop offensive chemical and biological capabilities within a very short period of time and develop a crude nuclear device in about five years. Without the controls they would have developed a nuclear weapon by now."

The International Atomic Energy Agency thwarted Iraq's attempts to develop a nuclear weapon but the UN weapons inspectors have not carried out intrusive checks since 1998.

Mr Straw spent more than an hour fielding questions about the situation in Iraq from more than 40 Labour backbenchers. Earlier he told MPs: "There is huge published, compelling evidence about Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime's complicity in the production of weapons of mass destruction."

There are deep anxieties in Labour ranks about the prospect of strikes on Iraq, with the number of MPs signing a Commons motion urging caution rising to 92 yesterday.