x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

UK report says WMD claim was based on taxi driver's tale

The intelligence claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be launched within 45 minutes apparently came from a taxi driver.

LONDON // The intelligence claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be launched within 45 minutes apparently came from a taxi driver. The launch time for WMDs was a central plank in the British prime minister Tony Blair's and the US president George W Bush's justification for the 2003 invasion. No such weapons were ever found, however, and yesterday a report compiled by Adam Holloway, a member of the British House of Commons defence committee, alleged that one basis for the claim was a conversation between two Iraqi officers that the taxi driver heard in 2001.

"Under pressure from Downing Street to find anything to back up the WMD case, the Secret Intelligence Services were squeezing their agents in Iraq for anything at all," Mr Holloway, a former army officer, writes in his report, The Failure of British Political and Military Leadership in Iraq. He said that when the driver's recollection of the officers' discussion was relayed to MI6, a footnote was written on the page of an intelligence report sent to Mr Blair stating that the claim was "verifiably inaccurate".

The MP's report, being published by a centre-right defence think tank, says: "The footnote said it in black and white. Despite this, the report was treated as reliable and went on to become one of the central planks of the dodgy dossier. It seems that someone, perhaps in Downing Street, found it rather inconvenient and ignored it lest it interfere with our reasons for going to war." Mr Holloway, who said he obtained the information from senior intelligence officers, adds: "The provenance of this information was never questioned in detail until after the Iraq invasion, when it became apparent that something was wrong.

"It had originated from an émigré taxi driver on the Iraqi-Jordanian border, who had remembered an overheard conversation in the back of his cab a full two years earlier." The taxi driver, according to the Conservative MP, was the "intelligence sub-source" quoted by the government in a dossier presented to the Commons by Mr Blair in September 2002 to "prove" that the Iraqi regime had WMDs. The invasion was launched the following March.

An Iraqi colonel, who had commanded an air defence regiment, subsequently came forward to claim that he was the main source of the intelligence, though this has never been confirmed. The dossier did not specify what weapons the Iraqis could deploy in 45 minutes but MPs, the press and public assumed that it was in reference to long-range missiles with chemical warheads, which, potentially, could have put British troops based in Cyprus within range.

Only months after the war did intelligence officials, under attack for providing wholly misleading information, claim that it was meant to be a reference to battlefield weapons, not missiles. In 2004, a government inquiry into intelligence gathering in Iraq, led by Lord Butler, reported that much of the information garnered by MI6 had come to them "third hand". It said the 45-minute WMD claim was "unsubstantiated" and should not have been included without clarification, and that "more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear".

The report also made it clear that, since the invasion, MI6 had accepted that some of the sources and sub-sources of information in the dossier were no longer regarded as credible. Sir John Scarlett, the chairman of the joint intelligence committee at the time of the invasion, had been expected to be questioned about Mr Holloway's claims when he gave evidence to the Iraq Inquiry in London yesterday afternoon.

However, Sir John Chilcot, the inquiry chairman, ruled that, although Mr Holloway's report might be relevant to the inquiry, it would not be discussed until a later date. He gave no reason for the decision. dsapsted@thenational.ae