Hans Blix: Blair made a fundamental mistake over '45 minutes to deploy' claim

The former UN official tells the 'IoS' he made clear to the Prime Minister that he was sceptical about the allegations on banned weapons. Mark Irving and Raymond Whitaker report

13 July 2003

Tony Blair made "a fundamental mistake" in claiming that Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, says Hans Blix, former head of the United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq.

Asked whether he thought the Prime Minister was wrong about the "45-minute" claim, made in the Government's WMD dossier last September and repeated by the Prime Minister when he presented the document in the House of Commons, Dr Blix told The Independent on Sunday: "I think that was a fundamental mistake. I don't know exactly how they calculated this figure of 45 minutes in the dossier of September last year. That seems pretty far off the mark to me."

Dr Blix retired last month as head of Unmovic, the UN weapons inspectorate. His inspectors returned to Iraq last November after a four-year gap, but quit again in March with their task incomplete as American and British forces prepared to invade. The Swedish ex-diplomat is now chairman of an international fund building a new shield at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, scene of the world's worst nuclear disaster.

Interviewed at Chernobyl, Dr Blix said Mr Blair was "strongly convinced" about the existence of WMD. "I talked to him several times, and I never had any other impression. In fact, I was the one who was sceptical and critical, and said that I didn't think that the evidence was so strong, and said so to the Security Council."

Did he think the Prime Minister had relied on flawed intelligence, or misinterpreted what intelligence there was? "They overinterpreted the intelligence they had," the former Unmovic chief replied.

On the "45 minutes" claim, Dr Blix said it was theoretically possible to switch in an instant from producing vaccines to producing biological weapons. "But a weapon is ... also about a means of delivery, and it seems to me highly unlikely that there were any means of delivering biological or chemical weapons within 45 minutes."

The American and British occupation authorities in Iraq have refused to allow the UN inspectors to resume their work. Instead they have set up the Iraq Survey Group to search for evidence of WMD. Dr Blix did not doubt the competence or sincerity of the British and American experts, but said there would be "greater credibility in having international inspectors rather than national ones ... It's more about the perception from the other side". He did not elaborate, but was clearly referring to Iraqis, the Arab world and a large section of opinion in the West.

Even if the inspectors were allowed back, was not there a date by which the physical or documentary evidence of unconventional weapons could no longer be viable? "No, if they have VX or mustard gas or anything like sarin, if it exists somewhere it should be possible to find it," he said. "But the Iraqis themselves, remember, claimed that it had been destroyed in the summer of 1991. Apart from that which they have indicated is existing in some of their sites, it should have been destroyed."

The absence of documentation of such destruction is the key question. "That's what we were so dissatisfied about, that they could not show any documentation. But towards the end of our stay there they produced a large number of names of people who they claim had participated in the transportation and destruction of the different kinds of weapons. If we had stayed, we would have interviewed these people. That might have provided rather a different dossier of information. But Iraq was still under a dictatorship, and interviews under such a dictatorship have some weaknesses."

As for rumours that Iraq spirited away some of its weapons of mass destruction to countries such as Syria or Iran, Dr Blix refused to comment, saying: "That's just a lot of speculation."

Hidden, destroyed or never there - what happened to the weapons?

So where are the weapons of mass destruction? Their conspicuous absence three months after the invasion of Iraq continues to prey on the Prime Minister's credibility. We know Saddam Hussein did have them - for many years he operated a procurement operation nuclear that enabled him to make , biological and chemical weapons, and he used gas on his own subjects, the Kurds, killing 5,000 in the mid-1980s. There are a number of theories about what happened to the WMD.

The first is that Saddam destroyed or dispersed them shortly before the invasion. Certainly the British and American military expected the Iraqis to use chemical and biological weapons. The suggestion that the Iraqis could deploy WMD in 45 minutes has now passed into political legend.

When WMD were not used against coalition forces, the Government intimated it was just a matter of time until the hiding places were uncovered. As recently as a month ago Whitehall sources were still suggesting that British intelligence would soon be in a position to provide evidence of WMD. That bullishness seems to have evaporated, as Americans comb Iraq for a hint of WMD.

In fairness there is a possibility that the much-debated 45 minutes claim could have applied only to chemical weapons. Ron Manley, a former UN weapons inspector, said this week that there remains one grey area, which could have justified the claim. He says it is possible Iraq stored the binary materials that can produce sarin and cyclosarin when mixed. "The precursor chemicals for these agents could be mixed together to produce the toxic chemical agent." Iraq would still, though, have required a means of delivering the chemicals.

The theory that WMD were destroyed just before the invasion is, however, unlikely. The Iraqis did not seem capable of the organised destruction, which would have been no small task. Places where such destruction would have taken place show no sign of recent use.

Theory number two was put forward for the first time in the pages of the Independent on Sunday last week. Professor Richard Shultz, one of the US's top intelligence experts, told us that a picture was beginning to emerge from accounts from scientists in Iraq that the strategy was changed some time before 2000. "I think we will find that the Iraqis dismantled their WMD programmes so that they could get sanctions lifted. Once sanctions were lifted they intended to reinstate their WMD research capability."

It was almost certain that Saddam ordered the weapons dismantled or destroyed in the late 1990s, he said. Meanwhile they dispersed the research and programme capability and the scientists. The plan was that it could all be reinstated once the UN inspectors had given the all-clear and sanctions lifted. But then bin Laden got in the way. "After 9/11 the Bush administration turned their attention firmly to Iraq," said Professor Shultz.

Theory number three is based on evidence given to UN inspectors by Hussein Kamel, the son-in-law of Saddam, who defected to Jordan in August 1995. The former director of Iraq's Military Industrialisation Corporation claimed to have carried out Saddam's orders to destroy all WMD after defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.

His story was not necessarily believed, as he did not provide hard evidence. Mr Kamel eventually returned to Iraq where Saddam had him executed.

Nobody seriously believes Saddam had a nuclear capability for at least a decade before the invasion. There is slightly more evidence of biological weapons activity in recent years and even more evidence for chemical weapons research. But whether the Iraqis made any such weapons after 1991 still has to be proved. For what it is worth, if I were a betting man, I would place my money on theory number two.

Paul Lashmar

Original URL: http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/story.jsp?story=424009

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