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Friday 6 February 2004 04:15pm


Sep 9 2002

By Bob Roberts And Richard Wallace

TONY BLAIR admits he hasn't the "faintest idea" what is going on in Iraq.

In an unguarded comment he revealed there is little new evidence that Saddam Hussein is developing or building weapons of mass destruction.

Speaking at his Camp David council of war with President George Bush at the weekend, the PM said virtually no information had come from inside Iraq since the departure of United Nations weapons inspectors 1998.

He said: "We haven't the faintest idea what has been going on in the last four years other than what we know is an attempt to carry on rebuilding weapons.

"The details of it is something that the Iraqi regime should be forced to disclose."

President Bush appeared to admit his claim that Saddam wanted nuclear missiles was based on four-year-old reports.

But he said: "I do not know what more evidence we need."

Mr Bush and Mr Blair have consistently said massive military action is justified because Saddam is on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon.

They also claim to be preparing a "dossier of evidence" to be published within two weeks which they hope will swing world opinion in their favour.

But critics believe it will be nothing more than a rehash of old information and anti-Saddam allegations.

And other senior US figures also admitted that evidence against Saddam was patchy.

Richard Haass, director of policy at the State Department, said the US was in no doubt that Saddam was seeking nuclear capability.

But he added: "We don't know exactly the true dimension of the threat.

"One of the questions for the British and US governments is what measure of uncertainty we are prepared to live with, given the man's track record."

The PM's slip came as he and Mr Bush bowed to massive international and grass roots opposition - after three hours of talks over grilled swordfish and Chardonnay they decided the UN must be given one last chance to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Mr Bush will tell the UN this week that Iraq is "a ticking time bomb".

In a speech on Thursday he called for a final ultimatum to allow the return of weapons inspectors. Any failure to meet the deadline would mean military strikes with the blessing of the UN.

And he will urge that it is time to take quick, tough action to topple the dictator.

But if they fail to support an assault, Mr Bush will it make clear the US will go it alone.

Vice-President Dick Cheney claimed yesterday that Iraq recently tried to buy thousands of special aluminum tubes it was thought could be used in making enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

He said: "We know about a particular shipment. We've intercepted that. We don't know what else, what other avenues he may be taking out there." Asked about a possible invasion of Iraq by US troops, Mr Cheney claimed: "I don't think it would be that tough a fight."

He admitted they would have to stay a long time to ensure a peaceful transition to a new government.

But he added: "The danger of an attack against the United States by someone with the weapons that Saddam now possesses or is acquiring is far more costly."

Mr Blair will tell the TUC conference tomorrow he wants the UN to take a new lead. But he will also insist it does so quickly and firmly.

A senior British official said: "The UN is the right place to deal with this but it has to address the issues.

"We cannot have a situation where year after year after year Saddam just flouts the will of the international community."

Looking tired after the summit, Mr Blair said: "The key thing is that we have shared values and a shared determination to deal with the issue of weapons of mass destruction ... on the basis of the broadest possible international support.

"This challenge is not simply for America or for Britain but for the whole international community.

"We have a shared strategy on how we believe this should go forward, based on the absolute determination that we have to deal with the issue. Doing nothing is not an option."

But he also repeated dire warnings that Saddam poses a threat to the world. In a TV interview he said: "I can't say it will be next month or even next year but at some point as a result of this the danger will explode. To say there is not an issue here is totally irresponsible."

Mr Bush is under growing pressure at home and abroad not to risk going it alone on military action.

In another blow a poll said 64 per cent of Americans - including 57 per cent of those in favour of an attack - believe he has not made a clear case against Saddam.

And 66 per cent told the New York Times the US should wait for allied support. Only 25 per cent backed a go-it-alone strategy.

A survey of the studio audience for Channel 4's War on Terrorism on Trial also showed firm opposition. Three quarters said Britain should not join an attack.

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