Cabinet split over threat of nuclear retaliation

Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, said yesterday that Britain should not launch a nuclear strike on Saddam Hussein even if the Iraqi leader were to use biological and chemical weapons in a conflict.

Ms Short also broke cabinet ranks to give her backing to an anti-war demonstration in London planned for 15 February.

Speaking in the Commons, Ms Short made clear she would be opposed to a nuclear strikeagainst the Iraqi regime. When asked by Tory MPs what would happen if biological or chemical weapons were deployed by Iraq, Ms Short was unequivocal. "I'm not a military planner but I can't see any scenarios ... where contemplating the use of nuclear weapons would be of any use whatsoever," she said.

Her remarks directly contradict Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, who said last year that President Saddam "can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons".

Ms Short outlined several risks caused by military action in Iraq, including environmental damage and the loss of water, sanitation and food for millions of Iraqis. She said the "horrendous possibility" of chemical and biological warfare was being prepared for in the UK. "What about the people of Iraq? No one can provide them with suits or immunisation. That is [a] horrifying humanitarian possibility."

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