War of words over Iraqi weapons
LONDON, England (CNN) -- Nearly two months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, coalition leaders are facing criticism for failing to find the weapons of mass destruction that they claimed were the reason for attacking Iraq.
Now, administrations in the United States and Britain are fending off accusations that they misled the public -- either unintentionally or on purpose -- about the existence of these weapons.
U.S. officials predicted before the war that at least 100 metric tons of weapon-ready chemical and biological agents would be found. For his part, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair had warned that Saddam could launch chemical or biological attacks within 45 minutes.
Yet despite a report Wednesday citing the discovery of apparent mobile weapons labs, U.S. forces have yet to find any banned weapons. (Full story)
"A lot of people are saying that if those weapons could be ready in 45 minutes, well we've had 45 days now since the war and nothing has shown up. It's a bit suspicious, isn't it?," said CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley.
"The big question on both sides of the Atlantic is to what extent did the politicians exaggerate and harden up what they were getting from the intelligence services."
On Thursday, UK Defence Minister Adam Ingram denied the government had put pressure on the intelligence services to distort information about Saddam's alleged weapons program to make a stronger case for war.
However, he said Blair's comment before the war -- on Iraq being able to deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes notice -- was based on a single source. The information "wasn't corroborated," Ingram added.
While acknowledging the search for Iraqi weapons has turned up little since Saddam's regime fell, many U.S. and British officials insist the Iraqi threat was real, at least before the war began.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared to support that premise Tuesday, saying a possible reason that Iraqi chemical and biological weapons have not been found was that Saddam's government had destroyed them before the conflict.
So far, the UK government has stood by its original claim, though it has offered little in the way of proof -- other then to say the weapons will eventually be found.
"I know there are a lot of disagreements in the country about the wisdom of my decision to order the action," Blair said Thursday during a one-day trip to Iraq, where he became the first Western leader to visit Iraq since the fall of the regime. (Full story)
But Oakley believes the weapons issue "could damage his [Blair's] credibility irreparably ... His excuse at the moment [for not finding the weapons] is that there are other priorities -- that they have to rebuild post-conflict Iraq and that there's a huge humanitarian mission, that they have got to concentrate on those things."
Former UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who quit over the issue of war against Iraq, has also re-entered the debate.
He said Rumsfeld's comments vindicated his decision to resign from his Cabinet job as leader of the House of Commons in protest against the war.
"If Donald Rumsfeld is now admitting the weapons are not there, the truth is the weapons probably haven't been there for quite a long time,'' Cook told British radio.
"It matters immensely,'' he said, "because the basis on which the war was sold to the British House of Commons, to the British people, was that Saddam represented a serious threat.''