29/05/2003

Rumsfeld concedes Iraq may have destroyed weapons

The Prime Minister's visit to Iraq has been overshadowed today by the US Defense Secretary's suggestion yesterday that Saddam Hussein may have destroyed any weapons of mass destruction (WMD) he possessed prior to war breaking out – thereby robbing the Coalition of its justification for war.

Yesterday, towards the end of an uneventful press conference Donald Rumsfeld said that it was "possible that they decided they would destroy them prior to a conflict".

Two months after the war was launched and at a cost of 34 British and almost 200 US lives – and several thousand Iraqis – no WMDs have yet been found. But Mr Rumsfeld's comments yesterday have outraged anti-war groups and MPs who spoke out against launching a ground war.

Labour MP Tony Benn accused Mr Blair of peddling "lies" and fellow left-winger Jeremy Corbyn said that the precept for war had clearly been built on "deception".

Liberal Democrat Shadow Defence Secretary Paul Keetch said: "Donald Rumsfeld’s admission is embarrassing and damaging for the coalition. The gap between what we were told before the war and what we are being told subsequently is widening.

"It would seem that either the intelligence was wrong and we should not rely on it, or, the politicians overplayed the threat.

"Even British troops whom I met in Iraq recently were sceptical about the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. Their lives were put at risk in order to eliminate this threat. We owe it our troops to find out if that threat was real.

"No weapons means no threat. Without weapons of mass destruction, the case for war falls apart."

Addressing troops in Iraq, Mr Blair remained convinced that WMDs would be found advising the country to "wait and see what happens".

Paying tribute to the actions of British troops, Mr Blair added: "I know there were a lot of disagreements in the country about the wisdom of my decision to order the action, but I can assure you of one thing, there is absolutely no dispute in Britain at all about your professionalism, and your courage and your dedication, and not just the way you won the war, which was extraordinary, but the way you are conducting the peace, which is remarkable."

Elsewhere, it has also been alleged that the government rewrote a crucial dossier - which claimed that Iraq's WMDs could have been deployed within 45 mintues - to make it "sexier".

The claim which was made a senior official has been fiercely denied by Downing Street.

Liberal Democrat Shadow Foreign Secretary, Menzies Campbell MP, said: "These are astonishing allegations. There is no doubt that the judgment of many people in the House of Commons was directly affected by the assertion that chemical or biological weapons could be used at 45 minutes notice.

"If this truly was an embellishment by Number 10, it turned intelligence into propaganda."

"This may well be a case for a special select committee investigation in view of the significance of these claims."

(GMcG)

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