British Prime Minister Tony Blair privately conceded before war with Iraq started that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction that could be used within 45 minutes, former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook claimed today.
Mr Cook said that it was clear when he spoke to Mr Blair just two weeks before conflict commenced that Mr Blair did not believe Saddam’s weapons posed a “real and present danger” to the UK.
He also gained the impression that Mr Blair was determined to go to war regardless of the progress made by Hans Blix and his team of UN weapons inspectors.
Mr 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 Sunday newspapers today.
In it, he claims that the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee John Scarlett “assented” when he suggested that Saddam had no WMD capable of being used over long distances to target cities.
And he says that a “large number of ministers” spoke up in cabinet against British involvement in the US-led military action, in the nearest to a “mutiny” he had seen since Mr Blair took office.
Downing Street shrugged off Mr Cook’s claims.
A 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.
“Robin Cook’s views are well known and have been expressed many times before.”
In extracts from the book, Point of Departure, Mr Cook reveals that he spoke to Mr Scarlett – whose committee brings together the chiefs of Britain’s security and intelligence services – on February 20, a month before hostilities began on March 20.
After receiving a detailed briefing on the latest intelligence on Saddam’s weapons capabilities, he concluded that the Iraqi dictator “probably does not have weapons of mass destruction in the sense of weapons that could be use against large-scale civilian targets”.
In a meeting on March 5, he told Mr Blair he believed Saddam’s WMD 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 Mr Blair was not troubled by the prospect of the weapons being used against British troops, he 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.”
Mr Cook, who quit the British cabinet on the eve of war, said the Prime Minister’s response left him “deeply troubled”.
“Tony made no attempt to pretend that what Hans Blix might report would make any difference to the countdown to invasion,” he said.
“The second troubling element to our conversation was that Tony did not try to argue me out of the view that Saddam did not have real weapons of mass destruction that were designed for strategic use against city populations and capable of being delivered with reliability over long distances.
“I had now expressed that view to both the chairman of the JIC and the Prime Minister and both had assented to it.”
Mr Cook said he had no reason to doubt that Mr Blair believed that Saddam had WMD ready for firing within 45 minutes in September last year, when the claim was first aired in the British government’s dossier on Iraqi weapons.
But he added: “What was clear from this conversation was that he did not believe it himself in March.”
Parliamentary rules required the British Prime Minister to correct the impression given to MPs by the September dossier as soon as he realised it was wrong, said Mr Cook.
And he asked: “If Number 10 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?”
Mr Cook said that Home Secretary David Blunkett and Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt raised objections to Mr Blair’s policy on Iraq in the cabinet as early as March 2002, leaving the Prime Minister “out on a limb”.
And fellow ministers said “hear, hear” when Mr Cook suggested that Arab governments regarded Israel, not Iraq, as the real problem in the Middle East.
It was “the nearest thing I’ve heard to a mutiny in cabinet”, he wrote.
But by September 2002, ministers had fallen in line, with a “grim” cabinet meeting taken up by a “succession of loyalty oaths for Tony’s line” and only then Education Secretary Estelle Morris voicing concern.