So, Mr Straw, Why did We Go To War?
May 15, 2003
So, Mr Straw, Why did We Go To War?
* Jack Straw, 21 February 2003: 'Some of these weapons are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them'
* Jack Straw, 14 May 2003: Asked of the need to find weapons of mass destruction... 'It's not crucial'
By Ben Russell, Political Correspondent
15 May 2003
The legal and political basis for the war in Iraq was thrown into doubt yesterday when Jack Straw declared that uncovering Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction was "not crucially important".
The Foreign Secretary's comments added to the confusion over the capacity of the former Iraqi leader to unleash chemical or biological weapons, which in the weeks before the Allied invasion had been declared an imminent threat to Britain and the West.
Mr Straw was accused of rewriting history after he appeared to undermine the Government's confident claim that Saddam held up to 10,000 litres of anthrax, declaring: "Ten thousand litres is one third of one petrol tanker. Whether or not we are able to find one third of one petrol tanker in a country twice the size of France remains to be seen."
Asked about Iraq's arsenal on BBC Radio 4, he said only: "I hope there will be further evidence of literal finds." Significantly, Mr Straw used the past tense to describe Iraq's arsenal, saying: "It certainly did exist. There is no question about that, and the Blix report suggested that it still existed."
Challenged on the importance of a fresh weapons find, he said: "It's not crucially important for this reason ... The evidence in respect of Iraq was so strong that the Security Council on the 8th of November said unanimously that Iraq's proliferation and possession of the weapons of mass destruction and unlawful missile systems, as well as its defiance of the United Nations, pose and I quote 'a threat to international peace and security'."
Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister, said: "Jack Straw is trying to reinvent history. All these claims about WMD are built on sand. If they do not find these weapons, it takes away the only conceivable justification for conducting this war.
"It shows the real reasons for this war: the superpower flexing its muscles and looking after resources, in this case petroleum."
Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, insisted yesterday that the existence of weapons of mass destruction was "the sole justification" for war and confidently predicted that such weapons would eventually be found, pointing to finds of biological protection suits and a vehicle thought to be a mobile biological weapons laboratory.
But Mr Straw's comments were the latest in a series of shifting statements from cabinet ministers about the whereabouts of Saddam's weaponry, the alleged threat from which provided the legal and political justification for the war.
They were in sharp contrast to the Foreign Secretary's speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs in February when he declared that some of Saddam's chemical or biological weapons could be deployed "within 45 minutes".
Since then the Foreign Office has, slowly and subtly, changed its rhetoric. While Mr Blair and Mr Hoon continue to exude confidence about the prospects of finding a "smoking gun" in Iraq, Mr Straw has quietly raised the prospect of a different scenario.
He first raised doubts over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction last month when he told MPs not that weapons existed now and would be found, but that "Iraq had illegal possessions of mass destruction and had them recently".
MPs and watching journalists were left with the impression, unchallenged by senior Foreign Office officials, that Britain was no longer completely confident that the elusive weapons would ever be found.
The Foreign Office has stressed that war was amply justified by Iraq's failure to account for weapons holdings dating from after the 1991 Gulf War, detailed in reports by the UN chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix.
Ministers, including Ruth Kelly, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, and the Foreign Office minister Mike O'Brien, have used the analogy of the conflict in Northern Ireland to justify the change, arguing that years of searching have failed to uncover the IRA's weapons dumps.
On Tuesday, John Reid, the Leader of the Commons, said he was not surprised that Iraqi weapons had not yet been found.
Mr Straw argued yesterday that the discovery of mass graves at the site of ancient Babylon provided a moral justification for the war.
"You see these pictures in newspapers about the discovery of 15,000 or so mass graves," he said. "Anybody who had any doubt about the rightness of our actions should just draw to their own attention the venality of the Saddam regime, which thankfully has now been removed."
But the Foreign Secretary's comments raised deep concerns in the ranks of Labour MPs already unhappy with the decision to take Britain to war. Doug Henderson, a former armed services minister, and a leading opponent of the war, said: "I think it's pretty essential if any legitimacy is to be maintained that the reason for embarking on this process is proven. If it's not, people will ask what are the motives for war."
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