'Blair knew weapons claims were incorrect'
British Prime Minister Tony Blair privately conceded before the war with Iraq that it had no quickly deployable chemical weapons, despite publicly claiming that Saddam Hussein's arsenal posed a serious threat, former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said today.
Cook said that when he spoke to the prime minister two weeks before the conflict began on March 20 he gained the impression that Blair was determined to go to war, regardless of progress made by United Nations inspectors hunting for weapons of mass destruction.
Cook's claims are included in a book based on diaries he kept during the tense period in the run-up to war, serialised in the Sunday Times. The London-based newspaper said the revelations shattered the case for war put forward by Britain, including the claim that Iraq posed a "serious and current" threat.
Blair's administration has faced criticism over its sensational assertion in a September 2002 dossier on Iraq that Saddam could deploy chemical or biological weapons in as little as 45 minutes.
Cook said that in a meeting on March 5, he told Blair he believed Saddam's weapons capability was limited to battlefield chemical munitions which could be used against British troops if they went to war, but could not otherwise threaten British interests.
When he asked whether Blair was not troubled by the prospect of such weapons being used against British troops, Cook said he received the reply: "Yes, but all the effort he has had to put into concealment makes it difficult for him to assemble them quickly for use." Cook said that if Blair's office "accepted that Saddam had no real WMD which he could credibly use against city targets and if they themselves believed that he could not reassemble his chemical weapons in a credible timescale for use on the battlefield, just how much of a threat did they really think Saddam represented?"
Meanwhile, the right-wing Mail on Sunday tabloid reported that a senior government source had claimed intelligence chiefs told British ministers that Saddam had got rid of weapons of mass destruction before the war started.
But Downing street ignored the warning, according to the unnamed source. Blair's office played down the claims by Cook, who resigned from Blair's cabinet of senior ministers shortly before the war because of his concerns over military action.
A Downing Street spokesman said: "The idea that the prime minister ever said that Saddam Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction is absurd. "His views have been consistent throughout, both publicly and privately, as his cabinet colleagues know."
The spokesman added: "Robin Cook's views are well known and have been expressed many times before." Blair was the staunchest supporter of US President George W. Bush in Iraq, deploying over 40,000 troops to support the campaign to oust Saddam.
The failure to find alleged weapons of mass destruction, claims in a BBC radio report that the government exaggerated intelligence on Iraq, and the subsequent suicide in July of British government weapons expert David Kelly, the source of the BBC story, have triggered the worst crisis of Blair's six years in power.
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