Published on Wednesday, October 13, 2004 by Agence France Presse
Britain Admits Error Over Iraq Threat Amid Demands for Apology
The British government formally withdrew one of the key arguments it had used for invading Iraq, as it faced demands in parliament for a "full apology" on how it presented the case for war.
However, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw stoutly defended his government's decision to join the US-led conflict as he was grilled by MPs following a new US report showing Saddam Hussein possessed no banned weapons at the time.
"Although we can now see that some of the intelligence was wrong, I continue to believe the judgments we made and the actions we took were right," Straw told the House of Commons.
Given Saddam's suspicious behavior toward United Nations arms inspectors and the intelligence then available, Straw said it would have required "a huge leap of faith" to give the Iraqi dictator the benefit of the doubt.
However, Straw's predecessor Robin Cook asked whether it "would have been wiser" to give the inspectors time to do their work given the doubts about weapons and the new findings of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG).
The ISG released a 1,000-page report last week that found Saddam had destroyed most of his chemical and biological weapons after losing the 1991 Gulf War and that his nuclear program had "progressively decayed."
Straw told MPs that the head of British intelligence service MI6 John Scarlett had written to lawmakers "formally withdrawing" two pre-war claims about Iraq's alleged weaponry.
These concerned intelligence on Iraq's ability to produce biological agents, and to mount an attack using weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, the latter of which was one of London's most high-profile warnings about Saddam.
Straw faced harsh criticism from the opposition Conservative Party, which supported the decision to go to war but has blasted the government for the ensuing chaos in Iraq and the handling of intelligence.
Gary Streeter, foreign affairs spokesman for the conservatives, accused the government of "stripping out" caveats from intelligence before presenting its case to the public.
Ahead of a general election expected in May, the Conservatives accuse the government of presenting intelligence labelled "sporadic, patchy and limited" by an official British inquiry in July as if it were authoritative.
Streeter demanded "a full apology -- not an apology for the intelligence, but an apology for the way that the intelligence was conveyed by the government to the country."
Straw replied by referring to Blair's qualified apology to the Labour Party conference two weeks earlier.
"The problem is I can apologize for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can't sincerely at least apologize for removing Saddam," Blair said on September 28.
Later Tuesday, opposition Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell said the fact that the 45 minute claim had been withdrawn further undermined the government's case for taking Britain to war.
"The building blocks of the government's case for military action are crumbling before our eyes," he said. "The withdrawal of the 45 minute claim drives a horse and cart through government credibility."
The give-and-take in the House of Commons also came after Straw made a surprise visit to Iraq, and after the beheading last week of British hostage Ken Bigley, an event which revived public fury over the war in Iraq.
Looking forward, Straw said logistical preparations were moving ahead for Iraq's elections in January.
"Successful national elections would deal a huge blow to the terrorists and insurgents who reject the ballot box and seek to rule with the bullet and the bomb," Straw said.
Straw and others expressed their condolences to Bigley's family, and outrage over his execution.
He said that communications with Bigley's kidnappers were in line with the government's long-standing policy "that whilst ready to receive messages from the kidnappers, we cannot negotiate with them".
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