Britain's inquiry into Iraq war

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MARCO WERMAN: How another US-led war began is making headlines in Britain today. A commission there is holding public hearings into Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq. Today, in the second day of testimony, former high-level officials revealed that less than two weeks before the 2003 invasion, the British government was told that Iraq's chemical weapons might not even be usable. The World's Laura Lynch reports.

LAURA LYNCH: Day two and the focus was on weapons of mass destruction, WMD, Saddam's alleged stockpile of chemical warheads, was at the heart of the British government's argument for invading Iraq. And one of the arguments being made in Washington in the run up to war was that those weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists, suggesting Al Qaida was working with Saddam. Today, two men who played key roles in Britain's foreign office, Sir William Ehrman and Tim Dowse, testified there simply was no link.

SIR WILLIAM EHRMAN: Our view was that there was no evidence to suggest collaboration, serious collaboration of any sort, between al Qaida and Saddam Hussein's regime.

TIM DOWSE: After 9/11 we concluded that the Iraqis actually stepped further back. They didn't want to be associated with al Qaida.

LYNCH: In fact, at the time Britain was more concerned about Libya, Iran and North Korea. And Ehrman said government ministers were told repeatedly that it wasn't easy to get any reliable intelligence on the state of Iraq's weapons program.

EHRMAN: April 2000, the picture was limited on chemical weapons. May 2001, the knowledge of WMD and ballistic missile programs was patchy. The assessment of the 9th of September 2002, intelligence remains limited.

LYNCH: And yet, former Prime Minister Blair was assuring parliament that the evidence was extensive and authoritative. But Blair never spoke publicly about another intelligence report, one that Ehrman revealed today. Ten days before the war, a claim that even if Saddam had weapons, he might not have been able to use them.

EHRMAN: We did at the very end, I think on the 10th of March, get a report that chemical weapons might have remained disassembled and Saddam hadn't yet ordered their assembly, and there was also a suggestion that Iraq might lack the warheads capable of the effective dispersal of agents.

LYNCH: So, asked one member of the inquiry, why didn't someone step back and reassess the need to go to war? Ehrman defended the decision to go ahead, saying Saddam was ignoring UN resolutions and that the reports from Iraq were contradictory. Opposition Member of Parliament Ed Davey said that's not good enough.

ED DAVEY: If the prime minister didn't really have the evidence to think that there was a danger of an imminent attack against another country by Saddam Hussein, if this intelligence was in his possession when he ordered war, there must be serious question marks about whether he actually broke international law.

LYNCH: Blair is expected to testify at the inquiry early next year. He'll probably also face questions about the now infamous government claim that Iraq could launch a chemical or biological weapon attack within 45 minutes. Tim Dowse told the inquiry he didn't consider the claim significant or even surprising, and he was puzzled it was given so much weight.

DOWSE: When I saw the 45 minutes report, I did not give it particular significance because it didn't seem out of line with what we generally assessed-- it didn't seem-- it wasn't surprising.

LYNCH: What did surprise both officials was what they found or more to the point, didn't find, after the invasion. They were confident inspectors would uncover weapons of mass destruction.

Months later, nothing was found. For The World, I'm Laura Lynch in London.