Iraq inquiry: 45-minute weapon claim 'new' to Hoon
Geoff Hoon 'unaware' of significance of 45 minute claim
Geoff Hoon has said the first he knew of the controversial 45-minute claim on Iraq was when he read it in the September 2002 dossier on its weapons.
The ex-defence secretary told the Iraq inquiry he had asked his officials for an explanation of what it meant.
They told him it referred to battlefield weapons only and he did "not think much more of it".
Mr Hoon insisted UK backing for the 2003 invasion was not inevitable and was settled only after MPs backed it.
Defence secretary between 1999 and 2005, Mr Hoon is the first member of the cabinet in the run-up to war to give evidence.
Asked about the 2002 dossier about Iraq's military threat - published by the government as it sought to press home the case for action against Iraq - Mr Hoon said the controversial claim that it could deploy chemical weapons within 45 minutes was new to him.
AT THE INQUIRY
Peter Biles, BBC World Affairs correspondent
Geoff Hoon's evidence raised few eyebrows until the end of the afternoon when he was asked about the announcement in 2004 to commit UK forces to Afghanistan.
"At the time, I didn't agree", said the former defence secretary.
Asked to explain, Mr Hoon made it clear that he and the Ministry of Defence had not been in favour of two "substantial" operations simultaneously, one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan.
He felt it was better to have a drawdown of British forces in Iraq before embarking on a Nato-led mission in Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, a decision to proceed was taken by the government, but only after Mr Hoon left the MoD in 2005.
The "lapsed lawyer" as he described himself, gave a careful presentation. He never allowed the Iraq Inquiry committee to pin him down on issues such as the rushed preparations for war or the shortage of equipment and resources.
"The only thing in the draft that, surprised is perhaps too strong a word, the only thing I had not seen before, in terms of my familiarity with the intelligence, was the 45-minute claim," he said.
Mr Hoon said he asked officials to explain what the statement meant.
"The explanation was fairly straightforward," he said. "That Saddam Hussein had guns that could fire shells containing chemical weapons. He had done that against Iran and could do so again."
"Forty five minutes was actually quite a long time for him to be able to order that these shells could be loaded into guns and fired. That part was explained to me and, frankly, I didn't think much more of it."
Mr Hoon said he was not aware that some weapons experts in the MoD had concerns about its validity and he said that he believed his department was "content" with the document.
Senior officials have admitted it should have been clear that the 45-minute reference - which was retracted in 2004 - applied to battlefield munitions and not to long-range missiles as many assumed at the time.
Mr Hoon said he was aware it had become an issue after the invasion, but said he had not realised why until he saw a Panorama programme more than a year later which included the newspaper headlines from September 2002 about the 45-minute claim.
He told the inquiry he had not known that the 45-minute claim had been given such prominence in the newspapers because he had been in Kiev at the time of the dossier coverage.
Mr Hoon also defended the lack of cabinet debate over the legality of the war in the days before the invasion.
Attorney General Lord Goldsmith advised ministers it would be lawful, having earlier raised concerns in a full analysis of the legal arguments.
Mr Hoon said it was "no great surprise" that Lord Goldsmith, as the government's chief legal officer, had initially put forward a range of arguments but insisted the attorney general's final conclusion was "categorical" and gave ministers the assurances they needed.
Mr Hoon said he regarded the attorney general's advice as a conclusive legal judgement rather than a policy issue to be debated by ministers.
"His (Lord Goldsmith's) decision was that it was lawful. I cannot see how cabinet can look behind it," he said. "I am not sure that it would be appropriate for cabinet to have that kind of discussion."
Declassified letters published by the inquiry on Tuesday show that Lord Goldsmith told Mr Hoon in April 2002 that there were "considerable difficulties" in justifying military action in Iraq.
Nearly a full year before the invasion Lord Goldsmith told Mr Hoon - following a TV interview he had given about Iraq - that he was "not aware of the existence of material indicating the existence of an imminent threat from Iraq which would justify military action without the support of a [United Nations] Security Council authorisation".
Asked about UK policy on Iraq, Mr Hoon said the "inherent assumption" it would take part in military action, come what may, was wrong.
The UK always hoped diplomatic efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein would be "successful", and involvement in any invasion was not inevitable until MPs backed the move.
It was apparent that the US "meant business" on Iraq by the summer of 2002, Mr Hoon told the inquiry.
But at this stage, he stressed, there was "no expectation" in Whitehall that the UK would take part in military action and this always remained only a possibility - if certain conditions were met.
As US military preparations intensified in the autumn, Mr Hoon said he was told by Downing Street that "overt" signs of military planning would damage efforts to get a fresh UN resolution on disarming Iraq and he should "minimise publicity" about preparations.
He conceded the need to push ahead with preparations while also prioritising diplomatic negotiations might be seen to be "at odds".
Asked whether the army was underprepared and short of equipment as a result, Mr Hoon acknowledged some soldiers did not have the right boots and some body armour was not distributed properly.
But he insisted he had been assured by commanders shortly before the invasion that the armed forces were equipped for operations.
Mr Hoon was critical of government funding for defence saying the department was underfunded for many years and requests for "significantly more money" were turned down.
Although he had "no problem" getting the Treasury to approve funding for day-to-day operations in Iraq, he said helicopter numbers were reduced not long after the invasion and this had left UK troops "reliant" on armoured vehicles vulnerable to road side bombs.
He also said after leaving the Ministry of Defence, he opposed the deployment of UK troops to southern Afghanistan in 2006 because he believed that, unless troop numbers in Iraq were simultaneously reduced, it would leave the army over-stretched.
The Conservatives said both Mr Blair and the then Chancellor Gordon Brown had "hampered" necessary preparations for the invasion.
"This has been a litany of bad decisions and represents a collective failure of government where the ultimate victims were the servicemen and women," said shadow defence secretary Liam Fox.
The Lib Dems repeated calls for Mr Brown to give evidence before rather than after the election.
On Thursday Jack Straw - foreign secretary at the time of the invasion - will appear for a single three-hour session and on 29 January Tony Blair will give evidence for a full day.
Demand for seats for Mr Blair's evidence has been so high the inquiry has allocated them using a ballot system.
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