updated 2/5/2004 9:34:45 AM ET 2004-02-05T14:34:45

Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon on Thursday played down suggestions that Prime Minister Tony Blair was not fully informed about the details of key intelligence reports in the lead-up to war in Iraq.

Blair said Wednesday that when he urged lawmakers to vote for military action in March 2003, he was unaware a claim that Iraq could deploy its weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes related only to battlefield weapons, not long-range missiles.

Hoon, who has already publicly stated that he knew what the claim referred to, said the claim in a September 2002 dossier that argued the government’s case for war “was not a matter that we greatly relied on.”

Video: Blair backs probe “I do not recall at the time this being a major matter of controversy,” Hoon told Sky television. “I don’t recall at the time any great debate about what kind of weapons system was involved.”

Hoon faced a grilling about Iraq on two fronts Thursday — before the House of Commons Defense Select Committee, and then in a meeting with families of six military policemen killed by a mob in Iraq last June. The families have complained that the men were left exposed in a dangerous place without back up.

Controversy over type of weapons delivery system
The September 2002 dossier stated that Iraq’s “military planning allows for some of the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them,” leading to newspaper headlines claiming they could hit British forces based in Cyprus.

But Joint Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett told Lord Hutton’s judicial inquiry that claim referred to tactical battlefield weapons, such as shells and mortars, and not long-range ballistic missiles, as had been widely assumed at the time.

Opposition Conservative lawmaker Michael Ancram said Thursday it was extraordinary that Blair did not know details about the type of weapons when both Hoon and former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook did.

“It beggars belief that on the eve of going to war ... that the prime minister didn’t know this and if he didn’t know, why on earth wasn’t he told?” Ancram said on BBC radio. “What other intelligence didn’t he know about?”

Hoon dismissed the controversy over the type of weapons delivery system, saying the fundamentally important threat remained.

“We are talking about weapons of mass destruction that we feared were in the hands of Saddam Hussein and he was capable of using them within 45 minutes,” he told the BBC.

The 45-minute claim came under scrutiny following a BBC report in May 2003 that alleged the government knew the claim was wrong and that it had “sexed up” the dossier to provide a case for war.

Hutton’s inquiry cleared the government of such activity and harshly criticized the BBC’s reporting.

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