We must not let one 'dodgy dossier' distract us from more crucial questions

Why, in the debate on the eve of war, did ministers drop some of the key claims of the September dossier into a convenient oubliette?
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I should begin by confessing to an unfashionable weakness. I have a soft spot for Alastair Campbell. Over the years I have worked with him I have never known him to brief against me or break an agreement between us. I wish I could say the same for everyone else at Westminster.

I also have some sympathy for the view he expressed to the Foreign Affairs Committee that the so-called dodgy dossier was largely irrelevant to the case for war, such as it was. Government and peaceniks can now celebrate that they have reached common understanding on one point at least. The second dossier was a shameful piece of unacknowledged plagiarism which would have earned any undergraduate immediate rustication.

However, it would suit the Government nicely if the deserved odium which has been visited on the dodgy dossier was to divert attention from the many pertinent questions to be asked about the September dossier. The real charge against the Government is not academic plagiarism but that its claims that Saddam had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, which were "a current and serious threat", have turned out to be wildly out of touch with the reality on the ground in Iraq.

It seems hopelessly petty to be arguing over the genesis of a press briefing pack, when half a dozen young men have just been massacred. On occasion I have worked with military police who exceptionally would provide protection for our ambassadors. I was impressed by the professionalism and self-restraint with which they went about their duty, and I grieve for this tragic loss of life among their ranks.

Yesterday John Major shrewdly identified a part of the problem - the fact that ordinary Iraqis are not convinced that the occupying powers ever intend to leave. I am not convinced myself that the Americans mean to go home. The Bush administration went into Iraq to shift the balance of power in the region and to establish a new platform for US influence. The dangerous absence of an exit strategy simply reflects that their strategy was to stay put.

It was, though, a strategy built on the delusion that the US presence would be treated with "an explosion of joy". Instead the occupying powers find themselves mired in the resentment that has greeted colonial rulers through all history. And they have scored some spectacular own goals, such as the sudden disbanding of the Iraqi army, which dispersed almost half a million men without jobs but with weapons and a training to use them.

Now the US military find themselves besieged by the guerrilla tactics of ambush and betrayal which their doctrine of overwhelming force cannot prevent, but only provokes more resentment among the civilians caught up in the retaliation. And, tragically, disaffected Iraqis are unlikely to distinguish too closely between the different troops of the two occupying powers.

The mounting casualty list promotes into bold lettering the question of whether the war was ever necessary, at the very time when the British justification for the war continues to unravel with every passing week in which no weapons of mass destruction are found. Even the evidence that has been produced to date has become discredited. The trucks that were paraded as mobile laboratories for biological weapons have turned out to be systems to provide hydrogen for meteorological balloons. Even more embarrassingly they appear to have been sold to Saddam by Britain in the Eighties.

It therefore was not surprising that in his evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee Jack Straw was commendably measured and went out of his way to lower expectations that arsenals of mass destruction might yet be found. When he was asked whether he was "confident" that the interrogation of the Iraqi top scientists would lead to prohibited weapons, he would only admit to being "hopeful". This caution is revealing as the key figures have been undergoing examination for weeks and the Foreign Secretary must already have been briefed on the results.

To be fair Jack Straw always avoided the more lurid claims of the menace posed by Saddam, and often gave the impression of a man trying to get his foot on the pedal marked "brake". It would not be a surprise when his memoirs appear if it turns out that he warned the Prime Minister more than once of the dangers of being sucked into war in the slip stream of the US administration. A striking feature of the Cabinet discussions in the run up to war was that British ministers tended to reflect the respective and differing positions of their opposite numbers in Washington. Thus the scepticism of Colin Powell about the wilder claims about Saddam's capacity to threaten us was reflected in the absence of those claims in Jack Straw's contributions. Conversely, Geoff Hoon echoed the more robust message of Donald Rumsfeld.

Geoff Hoon was at it again yesterday, promising that real weapons of mass destruction will yet be found. It is impossible not to sympathise with Hans Blix who dryly observed: "It is sort of puzzling to have 100 per cent certainty about their existence and zero certainty where they are."

But let us, generously, assume for the sake of argument that Geoff Hoon is right and that somewhere in Iraq there is a real arsenal of weapons of mass destruction waiting to be discovered. The implications are terrifying. There is no region on the face of the globe with a higher density of terrorist organisations than the Middle East. How do we know that one of them has not unearthed this arsenal before ourselves? If it is possible to smuggle priceless works of art out of Iraq, why not biological toxins or chemical agents? On the eve of the war Tony Blair warned that the possibility of weapons of mass destruction coming into the hands of terrorist groups was "a real and present danger to Britain". It would be a savage irony if the war which he supported had created precisely the conditions in which terrorists could get their hands on such material.

Asked about the claims that some chemical weapons were ready for use in 45 minutes, Geoff Hoon replied: "That particular fact was an assessment." Pardon? How can an assessment be a fact if it turns out to be wrong?

But a more troubling answer followed, when Geoff Hoon pointed out that the September dossier was six months old by the time of the war. This is very true and I have long been puzzled that its more alarming claims were not repeated in the March debate on the eve of war. There was no reference then to weapons ready within 45 minutes, to chemical production facilities that had been rebuilt, to a nuclear weapons programme that had been restarted, or to the purchase of uranium from Niger. All of these threats were expressed in September but suppressed in March, although the Government by then was desperate to convince a majority in Parliament to back war.

This prompts a key question for the two select committee inquiries. Why did ministers drop some of the key claims of the September dossier into a convenient oubliette? Had they, like Colin Powell, come to doubt the intelligence on which they were based?

Which in turn leads to the most crucial question of all. If the Government had come to doubt the claims they made in September, should they not have corrected the record before they asked the Commons to vote for war?