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'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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