London, 6 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon says he knew before the war began in Iraq about the limited nature of parts of the perceived threat from Baghdad but had not discussed the issue with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
A dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was published by the British government in September 2002. The dossier was used by Blair to justify joining the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The report contained the claim that deposed President Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes. But that assertion referred to short-range battlefield weapons, not long-range missiles that could threaten other states.
Yesterday, before the House of Commons' Defense Committee, Hoon said Blair had not been specifically told about the 45-minute claim because at the time it was not considered a significant issue.
"I obviously briefed the prime minister on a regular basis, and had this had been a significant issue, in terms of the decision to take the country to war, then I am sure this issue would have arisen in conversation between us. But as I emphasized, it was not a significant issue," Hoon said.
Hoon reminded the committee about the course of events at the time. He noted that Blair had not mentioned the 45-minute claim in his speech to parliament immediately before the decision to go to war was taken.
"Since it was not a big issue at the time -- except that it has become one since -- but since it was not a big issue at the time, this was not a matter that we discussed," Hoon said.
Blair admitted in parliament this week that he was unaware of the distinction but said, in any event, the war in Iraq was the right thing to do.
"I think we did the right thing, I think the world is a safer place as a result of it. I think we are better able to tackle weapons of mass destruction worldwide as a result of it, and I think this country, its armed forces, should be proud of what we achieved," Blair said.
Blair's office is accusing the media of attempting to "rewrite history" by exaggerating the importance of the 45-minute claim. A spokesman said "the 45-minute point played little part subsequent to the dossier in the discussion about Iraq."
"I obviously briefed the prime minister on a regular basis, and had this had been a significant issue, in terms of the decision to take the country to war, then I am sure this issue would have arisen in conversation between us. But as I emphasized, it was not a significant issue."
Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook -- who resigned shortly before the war began -- believes that Blair must have known about the distinction over the 45-minute claim because he himself knew a month before the war. He expressed his doubts about Blair's claim during the debate in parliament yesterday.
"I knew Iraq had only battlefield weapons because I asked the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. I have the highest respect for his professionalism. It is hard [to believe] that at no point between the September dossier and the March debate, he did not explain to the prime minister the crucial distinction between battlefield weapons and medium-range weapons," Cook said.
The leader of the opposition, Michael Howard, is calling on Blair to resign over the affair. He says that if Blair did know about the distinction, he misled parliament. If he failed to ask the proper questions and only learned later, he should also resign over what he called a "serious dereliction of duty."
An inquiry into the intelligence that led to the decision to commit British troops in Iraq held its first session behind closed doors yesterday. It is expected to report to parliament in the summer.