Blair 'knew Iraq weapons threat limited' - Cook


British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office has dismissed allegations by his former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook that on the eve of the Iraq war Blair no longer believed Saddam Hussein could quickly deploy banned arms.

In excerpts from diaries published today, Cook - who resigned from Blair's cabinet over the war - said the prime minister told him he did not believe Iraqi chemical and biological weapons were a threat to British troops because they were hidden and could not be quickly deployed.

A government dossier in September 2002 said Iraq could deploy such weapons within 45 minutes.

"I have no reason to doubt that Tony Blair believed in September 2002 that Saddam really had weapons of mass destruction ready for firing within 45 minutes. What was clear from this conversation was that he did not believe it himself in March this year," Cook wrote.

A spokesman for Blair's office said of Cook's allegations: "You can describe us as metaphorically shrugging... (Blair's) views on Saddam Hussein and Iraq have been consistent throughout, both publicly and privately."

Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush justified their decision to go to war against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by saying he possessed weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons have been found since the war.

The statement that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes has come to haunt Blair.

Intelligence officials have told an investigation into the suicide of a weapons scientist that they believed the 45-minute issue was overstated in the September 2002 dossier.

Cook, then Blair's leader of the House of Commons, resigned on the eve of the war. He was one of two cabinet members to quit over the decision to invade Iraq.

In the diary excerpts, Cook said Blair did not contradict him when he told the prime minister before the war that any Iraqi chemical or biological weapons were for use on the battlefield and not in long-range missiles.

Cook has maintained any Iraqi chemical or biological weapons could not be used on large, distant civilian targets, and were therefore not "real" weapons of mass destruction.

"Tony did not try to argue me out of the view that Saddam did not have real weapons of mass destruction that were designed for strategic use against city populations and capable of being delivered with reliability over long distances," Cook wrote.

The Sunday Times carried excerpts from the diaries under the banner headline: "Blair 'knew Iraq had no WMD (weapons of mass destruction)'."

Blair's spokesman shrugged off the accusation. "The idea that the prime minister ever said that Saddam Hussein did not have WMD is absurd," he said.