The phoney war

Reports by Andrew Grice and Ben Russell

08 July 2003

1. Iraq's weapons

Serious doubts were raised yesterday about whether Saddam Hussein possessed the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) on which Tony Blair and George Bush rested their case for war in Iraq.

In a damaging finding for Mr Blair, an inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee concluded that "the jury is still out" on the accuracy of the Government's dossier on Iraq's weapons, issued last September.

The MPs warned: "Continuing disquiet and unease about the claims made in the September dossier are unlikely to be dispelled unless more evidence of Iraq's WMD programmes comes to light."

The committee challenged the Government, which must respond in detail to the report in two months, to say whether it still believed the document was accurate "in the light of subsequent events" - the failure yet to find WMD.

Although Mr Blair believes evidence that Saddam possessed WMD will be found, senior MPs warned that time was running out. Sir John Stanley, a Tory member of the committee, said: "The longer the period during which no WMD are found on the scale indicated in that September dossier, the longer the period when there is also no evidence that such weapons have been destroyed, the greater is going to be the concern - not only in this committee and in Parliament but also among the British people."

Writing in The Independent today, Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, says the Government's alarmist claims in the run-up to the war now appear in conflict with post-war reality. He says: "We have not found any of the chemical weapons factories which we were assured were rebuilt. We have not traced the nuclear weapons programme which we were assured had been restarted. And we have not uncovered any weapons of mass destruction, never mind any within a 45-minute drive of the artillery units."

Mr Cook warns the Government not to make the security services the "fall guys" for the failure to find WMD by blaming poor intelligence. He says: "It was not the intelligence agencies who took the decision to go to war. The decision was that of the Prime Minister and it was he who used intelligence to justify the case for war."

Yesterday, a Ministry of Defence report on the early lessons from the Iraq conflict admitted that Saddam's regime was "a very difficult intelligence target with few sources of information".

The MPs' committee also raised doubts about the quality of intelligence material, saying: "It appears likely that there was only limited access to reliable human intelligence in Iraq, and ... the UK may have been heavily reliant on US intelligence, on defectors and on exiles with an agenda of their own."

Q: How long can we wait for evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? And if none is found, will the Government admit the basis for war was flawed?

2. Alastair Campbell and the BBC

Many Labour MPs believe that the war of words between the Government and the BBC diverted the Foreign Affairs Select Committee's inquiry - and the media coverage of it - away from the "real issue" of whether Iraq possessed WMD.

By persuading Tony Blair to allow him to give evidence to the MPs, Alastair Campbell, the director of strategy and communications, pictured, became the focus of the inquiry, and the dispute became the most serious between the BBC and a government. Without the row, yesterday's report by the MPs would have been seen as critical of the Government.

Graham Allen, a Labour MP, said: "Alastair Campbell brilliantly diverted MPs and the media by throwing the media pack the bone of the BBC. Now everyone must try to get back to the real agenda and pursue the big questions - why did the UK go to war?"

The committee said too much prominence was given to the warning in the Government's dossier issued in September that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes. But it cleared Mr Campbell of the allegation made by Andrew Gilligan, above right, the BBC's defence correspondent, that he "sexed up" the dossier. It found Mr Campbell "did not play any role in the inclusion of the 45-minutes claim" and "did not exert or seek to exert improper influence" on the September dossier.

That allowed Mr Campbell to claim victory, but it was not total. The MPs were split on party lines, with three Tories, one Liberal Democrat and one Labour MP saying the committee should not reach a verdict on the BBC dispute.

Although Downing Street sought to lower the temperature last night, the BBC rejected Mr Campbell's demand for it to say its original claim was wrong. The MPs' criticism of the "45-minute" claim justified the story, it said. The MPs also challenged the Government to say if it still believed the claim was justified.

The report failed to break the deadlock between the two sides. Although the Government will be relieved at the findings, the dispute has left a bitter taste for some. John Grogan, Labour MP for Selby and chairman of the all-party parliamentary BBC group, has called on the Government to stop pursuing the issue. "This row is now doing far more harm to the Government than it is to the BBC," he said.

Q: What was the basis for the claim that Saddam could deploy weapons "within 45 minutes"? And did Alastair Campbell pick a fight with the BBC as a diversionary tactic?

3. Niger and the 'sale of uranium'

Tony Blair was under increasing pressure last night to justify the Government's controversial claim that Saddam Hussein had tried to obtain uranium from the African state of Niger.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee said that it was "puzzled" by the Government's insistence that it stood by the claims, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) dismissed the allegations as based on crude forgeries. Previously undisclosed documents from the Foreign Office, handed to the Commons inquiry, acknowledged that some of the documents passed to the IAEA were forgeries but said that they had not originated in Britain.

Questioned about the claim in the Commons a month ago, Mr Blair replied: "Until we investigate properly, we are simply not in a position to say whether that is so."

Yesterday the Government stuck to its line that its September dossier was accurate, with the Foreign Office insisting that its information came from more than one source, and was received after the visit of a former United States diplomat to Niger to investigate the claims.

But Joseph Wilson, who was asked by the CIA to investigate sales of uranium from Niger to Iraq, said on Sunday it was almost certain that British and American leaders knew they were circulating false reports.

"That information was erroneous and they knew about it well ahead both of the publication of the White Paper and the President's State of the Union address," Mr Wilson told NBC television.

Yesterday the committee of MPs said it was "very odd indeed" that ministers were still reviewing the evidence about Saddam's alleged dealings with Niger despite the Government's insistence that it did not base its claims on documents now known to be false.

The MPs challenged the Government to explain the evidence for its allegations, and declare whether it still believed the claims to be accurate.

Q: As the Government still maintains that Saddam was seeking uranium from Niger, when will it produce the evidence to support the allegations?

4. The dossier

Iain Duncan Smith increased the pressure on Tony Blair last night to apologise for misleading Parliament over the provenance of the "dodgy dossier".

The Conservative leader called on Mr Blair to make an urgent statement to correct his claim to MPs that the February dossier represented "further intelligence".

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee heavily criticised Mr Blair, saying he "misrepresented" the dossier, which was largely plagiarised from academic articles on the internet. Alastair Campbell was attacked for not asking vital questions on the origins of the document.

It was revealed during their inquiry that 90 per cent of the document had been lifted from published papers, a mistake condemned as "wholly unacceptable".

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, has acknowledged the affair was a "complete Horlicks", while Downing Street and Mr Campbell have admitted that mistakes were made. Mr Duncan Smith told Mr Blair in a letter: "The select committee report is clear and explicit in stating that when referring to the dossier you 'misrepresented its status'. Consequently, you gave an inaccurate impression of the dossier to both Parliament and the British people."

He called for an independent inquiry into the affair. He added: "It is in your interest to clear up the confusion and immediately take the appropriate action against those persons responsible for you committing the serious mistake of misinterpreting intelligence in Parliament."

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, also called for Mr Blair to apologise for "unwittingly" misleading Parliament.

Q: Will Tony Blair now apologise for the "dodgy" dossier? And, as this was the first time Britain has gone to war on the basis of intelligence, will there now be a judicial inquiry?

5. The legal basis for war

Tony Blair, senior ministers and loyal backbenchers have deployed a host of reasons to justify the war alongside the prime case for disarming Saddam Hussein.

Mr Blair used the failing authority of the United Nations as a key argument for taking action to prevent Saddam's defiance of weapons inspectors.

However, he was left a severe political and legal problem when he failed to obtain a second resolution finally and unequivocally authorising force.

The Attorney General provided the ultimate legal basis for British involvement in the war in advice to the Cabinet in March. His advice was crucial after the threatened French veto ended hopes of gaining full international backing for war.

Lord Goldsmith based his advice to the Cabinet on the force of successive UN Security Council resolutions, based on the terms of the ceasefire after the 1991 Gulf War.

His one-page legal opinion argued that Saddam was in material breach of Security Council resolution 1441 because he failed to co-operate with weapons inspectors. That, he said, triggered the justification for the use of force passed in Security Council resolution 687 after the 1991 Gulf War.

Despite widespread suspicions that regime change was the ultimate aim of the growing confrontation with Iraq, Mr Blair consistently shied away from advocating the toppling of Saddam as a major war aim, except if it was necessary to secure disarmament. The distinction was crucial, because while acting in self-defence to neutralise a threat or imposing the will of the UN could be declared legal, simply intervening to topple a foreign leader could not.

Mr Blair insisted that he was acting through the UN to preserve the unity of the international community. However, Clare Short, the former secretary of state for international development, challenged that claim, accusing the Prime Minister of agreeing a secret pact with George Bush to go to war by the spring.

But Mr Blair linked Saddam with the threat of terrorism and suggested links with al-Qa'ida before the war. Mr Blair told Labour's Welsh conference in February: "I tell you it is fear, not the fear that Saddam is about to launch a strike on a British town or city ... but the fear that one day these new threats of weapons of mass destruction, rogue states and international terrorism combine to deliver a catastrophe."

In March he told MPs: "Do not be in any doubt at all - Iraq has been supporting terrorist groups. For example, Iraq is offering money to the families of suicide bombers whose purpose is to wreck any chance of progress in the Middle East."

Before and after the war, ministers stressed the human rights abuses and tyrannical nature of the regime. The Government's publication of a dossier on Saddam's human rights abuses was widely condemned as opportunistic. But the Government encouraged the work of the Labour backbencher Ann Clwyd, who has been a staunch campaigner against human rights abuses in Iraq. She was instrumental in briefing Labour MPs before the vote on war in March.

Last week Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, pointed to the removal of Saddam and his regime's support for Palestinian terrorism as a significant encouragement to the Middle East peace protest.

A group of 16 senior Labour backbenchers also justified backing war by declaring that "removing Saddam Hussein was not only morally justified, it has also provided an opportunity to resolve some of the most intractable problems of the Middle East."

Q: Was Mr Blair's primary aim regime change? Did he use WMD 'evidence' as an 'honourable deception' as Clare Short says? So was this war illegal? If so, will Tony Blair resign?

c 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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