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Blair under fire on Iraq claims
|October 13, 2004
| Tony Blair has said he apologises for mistakes in pre-war intelligence about Iraq's weapons but has angrily rejected claims he misrepresented it.
In the Commons, Conservative leader Michael Howard repeatedly urged Mr Blair to say sorry for misrepresenting the intelligence to the public.
And Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy accused him of waging an illegal war.
Mr Blair accused the Tories of "playing politics" and said the Lib Dems would have left Saddam Hussein in power.
The clashes follow the withdrawal of the claim Iraq could use the weapons at 45 minutes' notice.
At the first prime minister's questions since Parliament's conference break, Mr Howard said the intelligence services had said little was known about Iraq's chemical and biological programmes since 1998.
And yet Mr Blair had told the country it was "beyond doubt" that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce those weapons.
Mr Howard, who said he still backed the war, added: "How can the prime minister maintain he accurately reported the intelligence to the country. Why won't he say sorry for that."
The chief of the Secret Intelligence Service has written to the Intelligence and Security Committee formally withdrawing [it]
UK foreign secretary
The prime minister said he did not regret the war but said: "I have already apologised for any information that subsequently turns out to be wrong."
He demanded Mr Howard withdraw any suggestion there had been deception.
He countered that the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) had said the Iraqi leader had retained the intent, desire, capability and scientists for weapons programmes.
He said Mr Howard had four positions on the war - "three too many for anyone who seriously aspires to be prime minister".
Mr Blair taunted the Tory leader, saying: "What he is trying to do, having supported the war... is now capitalise on anti-war sentiment to try to give himself credibility".
He also said UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix had backed a section of an early draft of the government's 2002 dossier on Iraq.
Mr Kennedy said regime change was now the only valid argument for the war as the 45-minute claim had been discredited and no weapons of mass destruction had been found.
"But the prime minister knows that regime change is contrary to international law... Isn't it the fact now, and shouldn't the prime minister accept, that he led us into an illegal war?"
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Virtually nobody believes the justifications offered by any of the leaders any longer
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That claim was rejected by Mr Blair, who said nobody had mentioned the 45-minute intelligence in the eve-of-war Commons debate.
The ISG had found that Iraq had been breaking UN resolutions, which made the case for war.
"It was a difficult choice," he said. "I took the choice, I stick by it."
Challenged by a Labour MP, Mr Blair said news on Wednesday of mass graves found in northern Iraq were proof of the appalling nature of Saddam Hussein's regime.
The bitter exchanges come the day after Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told MPs the 45-minute claim had been officially withdrawn by MI6.
The claim was at the heart of an unprecedented row between the BBC and the government which led to the death of David Kelly and the Hutton inquiry.
But Mr Straw insisted that "even with hindsight" knowing that Saddam had not had weapons of mass destruction, the war had been right.
The ISG report concluded last week that Iraq was free of weapons of mass destruction by the mid-1990s.
The official withdrawal of some of the intelligence on Tuesday was the first time the House of Commons has been told the claim that Saddam could use WMD within 45 minutes of an order being given was now officially discredited.
The claim was a key element in the government's dossier on Iraq's weapons published in September 2002.
It became the focus of controversy after the BBC Today programme's Andrew Gilligan reported claims, in May 2003, that the government "probably knew" it was wrong before putting it in the dossier.
Those claims were vehemently denied by Downing Street.
The Butler inquiry into intelligence on Iraq's weapons in July said MI6 had said the claim "has come into question".
He said it should have had caveats attached to it in the dossier but stressed there was no deliberate distortion by the government.
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