GORDON Brown has revealed that the military threat from Saddam Hussein was not the reason he backed the war in Iraq, in an interview published today ahead of his appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry.
• Smoke covers the presidential palace compound in Baghdad in March 2003
Speaking to Tribune magazine, the Prime Minister declared that the real issue had not been the danger of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, but the dictator's failure to comply with UN resolutions that demanded he provide full disclosure to weapons inspectors.
This, said Brown, was the reason Britain and America were right to send in the troops.
Mr Brown's words represent a marked change from the government's main rationale for military action in 2003, when it asked MPs to support invasion. The motion, voted on by MPs, declared first and foremost that the UK should send in troops "to ensure the disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction".
Those weapons were never found, and ministers have admitted to the Chilcot Inquiry that their claim that Iraq could use WMD within 45 minutes had "haunted us ever since".
Mr Brown's comments suggest he intends to use his appearance at the inquiry to distance himself from the disputed WMD claims – and the No 10 operation which produced them. But critics last night hit out, saying Mr Brown could not now downplay the importance of WMD in the government's own case for war.
• Eddie Barnes: Brown's take on WMD distances him from Blair's grand plan
Mr Brown's comments come two weeks before he is due to be questioned at the Chilcot Inquiry, which has heard evidence on the controversy from the likes of Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and former attorney general Lord Goldsmith. Mr Brown backed the invasion in 2003, but he has never fully disclosed the extent of his role in the decision to go to war.
Asked when he first knew that there were no WMDs in Iraq, Mr Brown said that the whole question of WMD had not been of primary importance to him.
He said: "For me, the issue was all the time Iraq's obligations to the international community."
Pressed on the relevance of the WMD to the House of Commons vote in 2003, Mr Brown suggested it was not the key factor in his own support.
"The evidence that was given to us was that there were weapons and that was the finding of a number of people, but for me the reason for intervention was always the breach of international obligations by the Iraqi government," he declared.
He went on: "If Saddam Hussein had signed up to international commitments to disclose everything about munitions to the international community and didn't do it and then failed to respond properly, then the United Nations itself and collective action by the world community itself was put at risk, so for me that was the issue."
Mr Brown's comments refer to Resolution 1441, agreed by the UN Security Council a few months before military action. It warned Iraq of "serious consequences" if it failed to comply with the international community's demands to disarm and provide weapons inspectors with full access.
Saddam's failure to abide by this resolution was cited by the UK government as establishing a legal case for military action.
But critics of the war said last night that Mr Brown could not dismiss the relevance of WMD to the UN resolutions.
Former LibDem leader Sir Menzies Campbell said: "The resolutions which they said gave authority for military action were 657 and 678 and 1441 and they were all about weapons of mass destruction.
"You simply can't separate WMD from the allegation that Iraq wasn't conforming to the resolutions."
Mr Brown's opportunity to flesh out his views will come in the first week of March when the Iraq inquiry reconvenes.
The Prime Minister's comments to Tribune – the unofficial magazine of Labour activists and trade unionists – are sure to prompt fresh questions about whether he believed along with Tony Blair that Iraq did indeed pose a strong enough threat to the UK to justify war.
He will also face questions on claims made by former defence secretary Geoff Hoon that the Treasury under his control cut spending on helicopters.
In the Tribune interview, Mr Brown said he had asked the inquiry to schedule his questioning ahead of the general election. Originally, he had been due to appear after the election.
He said: "I don't want people to think that there are unanswered questions. I've got answers to give that I am happy to give.
" I also want my opportunity to explain what I tried to do and how I managed the things I managed to do. I want to make sure that people know that everything I did was both thought-through and justified."
Asked whether he thought the public would be satisfied with his answers, he added: "I think I will be able to explain what we did, why we did it and what I did from 2007-9 when I was in this job."
What they said
"The evidence that was given to us was that there were weapons and that was the finding of a number of people, but for me the reason for intervention was always the breach of international obligations."
"If September 11 hadn't happened our assessment of him… would not have been the same… After September 11 our view changed and changed dramatically."
Asked if he would have still pressed ahead with military action, if he knew then what he knows now, he added:
"I would still have thought it right to remove him."
Tony Blair on how 9/11 changed the approach to dealing with Saddam
"Plainly that reference should have been much more precise… That was an error and it is an error that has haunted us ever since."
Jack Straw on the "45-minute claim"
"At one stage my personal view was that, taking all these factors into the balance, there wasn't enough there. The balance came down in favour of saying, 'no, a second resolution is needed'. I then ultimately reached, when I had to reach a definite view on this, a different view."
Lord Goldsmith, on his initial thoughts on the legality of war
"Brown was pushed out and marginalised at the time and having cups of coffee with me and saying 'Tony Blair is obsessed with his legacy and he thinks he can have a quick war and then a reshuffle etc'.