Blair had doubts on Iraq arms, ex-minister says

British leader conceded weapons not deployable quickly, memoir claims


LONDON - Prime Minister Tony Blair conceded privately that Iraq did not have quickly deployable weapons of mass destruction as the British government was claiming as justification for war, says Robin Cook, a former foreign minister.

Cook quit his post as leader of the House of Commons in March because of Britain's decision to join the American-led war in Iraq.

He says Blair also made it clear to him in a conversation two weeks before combat began that he did not believe Saddam Hussein's weapons posed a "real and present danger" to Britain.

Cook's account was made public in extracts published in The Sunday Times of London from Point of Departure, a book based on his diary entries from the period.

An intelligence dossier published in September last year argued that Iraq had unconventional weapons that could be used within 45 minutes of an order being given. Cook said he had no reason to doubt that Blair believed the claim when it was made.

But in a conversation March 5, Blair told Cook that the weapons were only battlefield munitions and could not be assembled quickly by Hussein because of "all the effort he has put into concealment," Cook said.

Cook wrote that if the prime minister and his staff "accepted that Saddam had no real [weapons of mass destruction] 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?"

A spokesman for the prime minister's office 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. Robin Cook's views are well-known and have been expressed many times before."

The failure to find unconventional weapons and the public suspicions aired during six weeks of hearings this summer that the government doctored intelligence to win support for an unpopular war have caused Blair's popularity to slump to its lowest point since he came to power in 1997.

Cook said it was his impression in March that Blair was determined to take military action regardless of progress made by Hans Blix and the United Nations weapons inspectors.

Cook said he and other Cabinet members worried that Blair's decision was motivated more by his desire to maintain Britain's influence in Washington than to protect British interests against a possible terror attack.

"I am certain," Cook wrote, "the real reason he went to war was that he found it easier to resist the public opinion of Britain than the request of the president of the United States."

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