British officers knew on eve of war that Iraq had no WMDs

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Key points

• UK intelligence learned just before war that Iraq had not assembled chemical weapons

• Mossad "knew 45-minute claim was an old wives’ tale" - but did not tell UK or US

• US Secretary of State "does not know" if he would have recommended invasion if he had been told Iraq had no WMDs

• Former civil service chief to lead investigation into whether British intelligence on Iraq was accurate

• Lib Dems boycott inquiry because of tight terms of reference

Key quote "Intelligence indicating that chemical weapons remained disassembled and that Saddam had not yet ordered their assembly was highlighted."

Story in full BRITISH intelligence officers learned on the eve of the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein had not assembled his chemical weapons and it was highly doubtful if he could deploy any within 45 minutes.

The Foreign Office yesterday admitted that the joint intelligence committee (JIC) warned in March last year that "the intelligence on the timing of when Iraq might use chemical and biological weapons was sparse".

This disclosure came as a senior Israeli politician claimed that Mossad, its intelligence agency, knew before the war that the 45-minute claim was "an old wives’ tale" - but decided against telling Britain or the United States.

In a further blow to the British government, Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, has said he does not know whether he would have recommended an invasion of Iraq if he had been told it had no stockpiles of banned weapons.

The events unfolded as Lord Butler of Brockwell, a former head of the civil service, was asked by Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, to lead a six-month investigation into whether British intelligence was accurate in the run up to the war.

The Foreign Office yesterday released its official response to the Commons intelligence and security committee - admitting that the confidence behind No10’s dossier in September 2002 had fast eroded.

The JIC’s report in March 2003, which came as British and US troops were lining the Iraqi border ahead of invasion, added that "intelligence on deployment" of chemical and biological weapons "was sparse".

It said: "Intelligence indicating that chemical weapons remained disassembled and that Saddam had not yet ordered their assembly was highlighted."

It also said that the 750km range al-Hussein ballistic missiles, which it had warned could reach British bases in Cyprus, "remained disassembled and that it would take several days to assemble them".

No 10 said it believed yesterday’s disclosures by the Foreign Office had no impact on the case for war made in its September 2002 dossier, even though Mr Blair had told MPs that some of Saddam’s chemical and biological weapons were ready to fire "within 45 minutes of an order to do so". The Scotsman yesterday detailed how this heavily drew on old CIA reports.

The tight terms of reference outlined by the government yesterday for an inquiry into British intelligence dismayed the Liberal Democrats, who refused to take up the place they were offered on the committee in protest.

Menzies Campbell, the Lib Dem defence spokesman, said: "This deals neither with the workings of government nor with the political decision making."

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, said the Lib Dems have misunderstood the arrangement, which he sees as an opportunity to steer the new inquiry towards No10.

"I am confident that these terms of reference cover the use made by the government of the intelligence," he said. "Indeed, I was told that was what the Prime Minister wanted them to do."

No10, however, flatly disagreed. "This committee is not a substitute for Cabinet government and for parliament, and for decisions taken by elected politicians," said Mr Blair’s official spokesman.

Yossi Sarid, a member of Israel’s foreign affairs and defence committee, said yesterday Mossad knew Saddam’s regime was in disarray. "It was known in Israel that the story that weapons of mass destruction could be activated in 45 minutes was an old wives’ tale," he said. "Israel didn’t want to spoil President Bush’s scenario, and it should have."