A British intelligence report made public Tuesday provided a highly detailed look at Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s thirst for weapons of mass destruction, but the formerly top-secret dossier appeared chiefly to underline what experts have been saying for years: Iraq continues to pursue biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs in violation of U.N. regulations. Baghdad, meanwhile, dismissed the dossier as baseless.
BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Tony Blair unveiled the long-awaited Iraq dossier on Tuesday, ahead of an emergency debate in Parliament on Iraq.
Blair, a chief supporter of President Bush’s call for pre-emptive action against Saddam, used the compilation of intelligence reports to rally support for restricting Baghdad’s ability to wage war.
“I am in no doubt that the threat is serious and current, that [Saddam] has made progress on [weapons of mass destruction], and that he has to be stopped,” Blair said in an introduction to the dossier.
Later, addressing his anti-war opponents in a packed House of Commons, Blair argued that “the case for ensuring Iraqi disarmament is overwhelming. Alongside the diplomacy there must be genuine preparedness and planning to take action if diplomacy fails.”
While the 50-page report largely rehashes what the United Nations, Washington and independent experts have published in the past, it provides greater detail of Saddam’s methodic efforts to procure weapons — evidence which could boost support for a U.S.-British military campaign against the Iraqi leader.
Since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, Saddam has repeatedly flouted U.N. resolutions requiring him to disarm and dismantle weapons building programs. After U.N. weapons inspectors left Baghdad in 1998, U.S. and British officials say they have documented Saddam’s attempts to rebuild arsenals destroyed in the Gulf War — despite international sanctions that prohibit Iraq from importing components that can be used for a military purpose.
Iraq immediately dismissed the British report as baseless. In Cairo, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told reporters the dossier “aims to justify the unjustifiable ... the aggressive intentions against Iraq.”
Bush, meanwhile, praised Blair’s report, calling it a strong defense of U.S.-led efforts against Saddam.
“We don’t trust this man and that’s what the Blair report showed today,” Bush said after a Cabinet meeting.
WEAPONS PROGRAMS CONTINUE
Based on British, European and U.S. intelligence, the report said:
Iraq continues to produce chemical and biological agents, and military planners have drawn up a battle plan that calls for the use of such weapons against the country’s Shia population. The report says Baghdad retains the capability of deploying chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to use them.InsertArt(2009294)
Saddam has attempted covertly to acquire significant quantities of uranium from Africa, despite Iraq’s lack of an active civil nuclear program to justify its use. Baghdad has also sought to smuggle technology that could be used in the production of nuclear weapons.
Iraq has begun to hide documentation and equipment related to its weapons programs — in advance of a possible return of U.N. weapons inspectors to the region.
The report also said that Iraq had greatly expanded its ballistic missile programs by illegally extending the range of its al-Samoud liquid propellant missile, and concealing up to 20 al-Hussein rockets from weapons inspectors before 1998.
The 400-mile range of the al-Hussein — coupled with Iraq’s ability to quickly deploy biological and chemical agents — could prove worrisome to U.S. military planners concerned about Saddam’s retaliation in the event of a U.S. strike on Iraq. In the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq fired missiles at Israel in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes. The al-Hussein’s range makes it capable of hitting arch-enemy Israel, much of the Middle East and Turkey, where U.S. and British warplanes enforcing U.N. ‘no-fly’ zones over Iraq are based.
CASE AGAINST SADDAM
In advance of the report, British officials said the dossier would provide no “smoking gun” — and the document released Tuesday offers no tangible evidence that Saddam has built a nuclear bomb. But if U.N. sanctions against Iraq were dropped, Saddam has the ability to build a nuclear weapon in 1-2 years, said the dossier.
Analysts have been warning for years that Saddam has continued to develop chemical and biological weapons and has also tried to develop nuclear weapons, although with little sign of success.
Maj. Charles Heyman, editor of Jane’s World Armies, said the report “does not produce any convincing evidence, or any killer fact, that says that Saddam Hussein has to be taken out straight away.”
“What it does do is produce very convincing evidence that the weapons inspectors have to be pushed back into Iraq very quickly,” Heyman said.
Officials said Britain was seeking to advance the case that Iraqi weapons constitute an imminent danger.
Earlier this month, Saddam invited weapons inspectors back in to Iraq — a move Washington has dismissed as a ploy — but one the U.N. Security Council is expected to endorse. Blair said that the international community must be ready to act against Saddam if inspectors are prevented from carrying out their work.
“We must insure that he does not get to use the weapons he has, or get hold of the weapons he wants,” Blair said.
As the Parliament convened for a special session, demonstrators greeted British lawmakers in London. Blair’s staunch support for Washington’s hard-line on Iraq has drawn protest in Britain and across the English Channel.
Polls across Europe unanimously show that Europeans believe the United States and Britain — as likely leaders of military action against Iraq — should seek support from the United Nations before striking Saddam.
Blair faced strong challenges in Tuesday’s emergency debate in Parliament.
Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, urged Blair to push the United States to seek a U.N. resolution in the event force is used against Iraq.
“For those of us who have never subscribed to British unilateralism, we are not about to sign up to American unilateralism now either.”
Blair responded to Kennedy and other parliamentarians that U.N. backing was crucial to influencing Saddam.
“The one thing I am sure of is that there is no prospect of a proper weapons inspection regime going back in there and doing its job properly unless Saddam knows that the alternative to that is that he is forced to comply with the U.N. will,” Blair said.
When on member of parliament questioned Washington’s push for “regime change” in Iraq, Blair did said he would welcome Saddam’s departure.
“The one thing I find odd are people who can find the notion of regime change in Iraq somehow distasteful.”
Blair also faced opposition from within his own Labor Party, as evidenced by the publication of a counter-document, called “.”
“The reality is this is a war about George Bush, arms and oil, and we will be questioning Blair very closely about why Britain cannot have a foreign policy independent of the U.S. administration,” said lawmaker Jeremy Corbyn.
Preston Mendenhall is MSNBC.com’s international editor based in London. The Associated Press contributed to this report.