Top civil servants were grilled today over fears Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction ? used to support the 2003 invasion but never borne out ? at a British inquiry into the conflict. On day two of public hearings in London, senior officials revealed they had found some evidence of contact between Iraq and al Qa'eda, but that this had scaled down after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
They also addressed an infamous claim by Britain's government in 2002 that Iraq had WMDs and could launch a chemical or biological strike within 45 minutes. Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who took Britain into the war shoulder-to-shoulder with then US president George W Bush, will be among those giving evidence, although not until January. Current premier Gordon Brown could also be called.
Among the most eye-catching revelations during often highly technical exchanges today were of links between Iraq and al Qa'eda extremists. "We did find some evidence of contacts between Iraqi officials and individual members of al Qa'eda in the late 1990s," Tim Dowse, then Foreign Office head of counter-proliferation, told inquiry chairman John Chilcot. "But the judgement we came to was that these had been quite sporadic contacts ... they hadn't been anything that looked like a relationship between the Iraqis and al Qa'eda".
The Iraqis "stepped further back" from al Qa'eda after 9/11, Mr Dowse added. Mr Chilcot asked another witness, William Ehrman ? then director of international security at the Foreign Office and now British ambassador to China ? if Britain had talked to the United States about this issue. "They put more weight on some of the links ... than we did but our view was there was no evidence to suggest serious collaboration of any sort between al Qa'eda and Saddam Hussein's regime," Mr Ehrman said.
Mr Dowse said this assessment was shared by colleagues in US intelligence, although implied this may not have been the case among some in the Bush administration. The two senior officials were also quizzed by Mr Chilcot, a former top civil servant, about the 45-minute claim. This caused a major political row in Britain at the time after the BBC alleged that the intelligence dossier containing the claim was "sexed up" to strengthen the case for war.
That was fiercely denied by the government. Government weapons expert David Kelly killed himself in 2003 amid claims he was the source of the BBC story, prompting an official inquiry. Mr Dowse said he had not been surprised by the 45-minute claim when he first heard of the BBC report, despite the "rather iconic status" it subsequently assumed. "When I saw the 45 minutes report, I didn't give it particular significance because it didn't seem out of line (with assessments at the time)," he said.
"It subsequently took on a rather iconic status which I don't think those of us who saw the initial report (expected) ... it wasn't surprising." The inquiry heard that, to officials, the 45-minute claim would have referred to chemical weapons for battlefield use, not for interstate use. They also noted that in terms of nuclear proliferation, countries like Iran, North Korea and Libya were of greater concern than Iraq in 2001, although Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's "history of aggression" fuelled concerns about his intentions.
Asked if there were concerns that Iraq was about to become a nuclear power, Mr Dowse said: "Not imminently, no" ? while stressing that if sanctions were removed, officials thought Saddam would try to rebuild his nuclear capability within five years. The inquiry, the third official probe into the war, is looking at all elements of Britain's involvement in Iraq between 2001 and 2009, when nearly all its troops withdrew. It is due to report by the end of 2010.