Friday 30 May 2003

Did Blair lie to us?

The PM's warning that Iraq could strike in 45 minutes now looks bogus, and we may never trust him again.

by Polly Toynbee

Among the tragedies of the Iraq war this one might seem trivial - the end of Tony Blair as the great persuader. His phenomenal ability to convince people of almost anything is done for, dead in the filthy water of the Baghdad streets. That spillage is a sorry waste of irrecoverable political credibility that should have been saved for other things.

He squandered it on September 24 last year as he spoke to a mesmerised House of Commons, presenting his dossier of intelligence information on Saddam's weapons. It was a bravura performance, spellbinding in its quiet solemnity, reasoning the arguments one by one, blending conviction with eerie threats. Forty-five minutes! Good God! You could see the MPs' hairs standing up on end, calculating how far this holocaust might reach. That precise timing resonated with a generation that grew up discussing what to do in the four-minute nuclear warning - run a mile, boil an egg, have sex... In that speech he over-egged it and he must have known it. Whether Downing Street demanded the fateful "45 minutes" or not, he knew - and it is there in cold print - that the chilling words ran far beyond what anyone knew for sure.

Reading his introduction to the dossier, it is careful in its caveats, filled with "probably", "appears" and "almost certainly". "Intelligence is not always right" and "gathering intelligence inside Iraq is not easy" pepper the text. But between these come the deadly shockers - one-and-a-half tonnes of VX nerve agent, 26,000 litres of anthrax spores, 30,000 special munitions of delivery - and then that killer 45 minutes. "Our purpose is disarmament," he said. "The whole purpose" was "a proper process of disarmament".

But now Donald Rumsfeld shrugs that off as an irrelevance. Well, Saddam may have destroyed them all before the war began. We can only hope he is right since Robin Cook raises the alarm that they may yet emerge lethally: "The prospect of any chemical shells or biological toxins being left unguarded in such an unstable region is a nightmare." What if Qusay took them away with him in his trailers full of cash? What if the war to stop WMD falling into the hands of terrorists turns into the means by which terrorists finally get their hands on them? "A savage irony," says Cook.

Apart from that danger, it makes no difference now to the justification for the war if they are never found or accounted for. After all, Hans Blix always said they were there and we who opposed the war never doubted it. The only important question was how dangerous they were and whether Saddam would or could use them. Saddam's non-use of the weapons even in the death throes of his regime was conclusive proof that he had none he could use. Weapons inspections had done their work, forcing him to render them unusable. So far, the US says, Iraqi scientists have revealed nothing useful. Yesterday Blair promised some WMD would be found - but it changes little: they were not used. Why not? Reading Saddam's deranged mind was beyond the intelligence services, but pride and the habit of absolute power perhaps made him unable to bend to the UN, even if he had nothing much to hide. Tony Blair put his credibility into the hands of Saddam's caprice.

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