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Wednesday, 25 September, 2002, 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK
Dossier against Iraq: Ask Andrew Marr

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  • Click here to read the transcript


    Prime Minister Tony Blair is now debating Iraq with MPs in a one-day emergency recall of Parliament.

    The 55-page dossier of evidence against Saddam Hussein was released by the government on Tuesday morning prior to the debate.

    Mr Blair says he has become "increasingly alarmed" in recent months by evidence that Saddam Hussein is developing weapons of mass destruction in contravention of UN resolutions.

    The Prime Minister says that "I am quite clear that Saddam will go to extreme lengths, indeed has already done so, to hide these weapons and to avoid giving them up."

    Do you think the information released in the dossier is convincing? Does it make war against Iraq more or less likely?

    You put your questions to Andrew Marr, BBC's political editor, in an interactive forum.


    Transcript


    Newshost:

    The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, believes his dossier shows Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme is active, detailed and growing. The dossier claims that Iraq continues to produce chemical and biological agents and has drawn up military plans for their use. Joining us to take your questions is the BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr.

    I'm going to kick-off straightaway with the e-mails. We've got one from Dan Smart, Birmingham, England: Does the dossier contain any radically new information, or are we just seeing the same information rehashed?


    Andrew Marr:

    No it doesn't contain anything radically new. There are little bits which we didn't know before. For instance, the suggestion that Saddam has been trying to buy uranium for his nuclear programme from Africa and a little bit more detail about the potential for longer range missiles which he is clearly working on.

    What it does is that it brings together a lot of stuff - some of it is hard edged, some of it rumour and puts it in a kind of narrative or a story to tell the tale of Saddam Hussein as somebody who has got a lot of extremely dangerous stuff, is trying to acquire more, hold onto to what he's got, is unstable and is a particularly unpleasant dictator. Now we knew all that but the Government hadn't laid out the full story in quite this way before.


    Newshost:

    D Afari, Accra, Ghana: When did the UK first have this evidence against Iraq? Why has it been kept secret all this time?


    Andrew Marr:

    Well, a lot of it of course hasn't been kept secret in the sense that if you knew where to look on the web you could find this stuff. Some of the evidence comes from relatively well known sources - from defectors, from satellite photographs, from scraps of information before the inspectors were forced to withdraw last time round and therefore it's quite old.

    Other elements of it comes from spies, I guess. The stuff is put together by something called the joint intelligence committee which is what we used to call MI6 and MI5 - the British spooks if you like - it's their committee giving advice to the British Prime Minister. It's always private, it's always secret indeed and it's quite unusual for their advice and their assessment to be made public in this way. So a mixture of old stuff, stuff that you can find publicly and material from spies and spying satellites and so on.


    Newshost:

    Am I right in saying that there's a lot of discussion about what should actually be put in and perhaps some material actually has been held back because it's too sensitive and would perhaps reveal too much about our intelligence agencies and their work?


    Andrew Marr:

    Yes, there's two theories about this. The one that flatters the Government, if you like, is that there is even more worrying material - much more detailed material - which they can't publish because it would endanger the lives of agents.

    There's another theory that the delay in publishing this document has been all about an argument between the politicians, who wanted to make it as scary as possible and the professionals in the intelligence services of the Armed Forces and so on, who insisted, with Civil Service professionalism, on a rather more sober and moderate document. And it certainly is a moderate document - it makes no suggestion at all that Saddam Hussein either has got nuclear weapons or can get them very quickly.


    Newshost:

    On that issue of material being held back. How likely is it that that is political spin? That there's all these terrible things going on - we'd love to tell you about them, but we can't because it would endanger our spies.


    Andrew Marr:

    It is so important for the Government to win over public opinion in Britain and in the House of Commons and in the Labour Party, that I think this is the most damning dossier that they could possibly put together at this moment and to be taken seriously. I therefore don't think that there's a great deal that's being held back.


    Newshost:

    Andy Carling, Brussels, Belgium: The dossier seems to set out a strong case that Iraq should be contained, but not a case for going to war?


    Andrew Marr:

    Yes and that's more or less, at the moment, what the Government are saying. They're saying, look here is the case for going for intrusive, serious and pretty quick weapons inspections. This is about - the Prime Minister has just said it again in the House of Commons - it's all about de-arming and inspecting Saddam Hussein's - Iraq's - weapons of mass destruction. It is not about toppling Saddam Hussein in a war.

    Now we also know however that if Iraq is slow or obstructive when the inspectors are sent back in, the American's patience will run out very quickly and they do believe absolutely clearly in getting rid of Saddam - what they call decapitating or beheading the Iraqi regime. And Britain will then have a very, very difficult choice to make - do we go with the Americans or do we go with the United Nations.


    Newshost:

    Mike, Frankfurt, Germany: Why does the Prime Minister of the UK needs to ask Parliament before doing a simple thing like banning blood sports of country wildlife, but is not required to ask Parliament's consent before commencing the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people?


    Andrew Marr:

    Well it's a good question. It is our ancient constitution. With foxhunting or almost anything else, you have to pass legislation, you have to pass new laws through Parliament in order for that to happen. When it comes to a whole series of things, from giving our decorations to declaring war, it is still the Monarch, the Queen, who is formally able to do that.

    The Prime Minister has a thing called Royal Prerogative, which means the Prime Minister can act almost like an ancient monarch without reference to Parliament or anybody else in decisive actions. This has been a complaint of British constitutional reformers ever since I came into journalism and even a long time before that. The extraordinary powers that the British State vests in a Prime Minister to, as I say, declare war and many other things as well.

    In practical terms, I have to say, I don't think that Tony Blair could launch an effective campaign in Iraq or anywhere else without the clear assent of the House of Commons.


    Newshost:

    I suppose it's important to make the point here that America can go into conflicts with other countries, it's just war that it needs permission from Congress.


    Newshost:

    Patrick O'Sullivan, Taipei, Taiwan: Notwithstanding that the dossier contains some pretty damning material, it is not enough to justify a war, unless Israel is also forced to obey UN resolutions requiring them to surrender land occupied since the 1967 war? Why do Bush and Blair continue to ignore the issue of Palestine?


    Andrew Marr:

    Well, I do know that Tony Blair has been trying very hard to persuade the Americans that you cannot start a major reshaping of regimes in the Middle East without addressing the Palestinian question. In the House of Commons today, Mr Blair was again saying that it was very important to restart the peace process. He wants a new conference called to bring the Israelis, the Palestinians, together to try to have another go at that. He knows, like everybody else, that that's only practical, it's only really going to happen if the Americans are prepared to put pressure on Israel. And the problem that he's got is that George Bush isn't. At least not so far.

    Tony Blair went to see the American President and has talked to him a lot over the phone - has influence on him, has succeeded in helping persuade the US Administration to go back to the United Nations and to pursue their argument with Iraq through the UN. But he has not been successful when it comes to Israel and the peace process.


    Newshost:

    Do you think that any deals have been done in terms of supporting America against Iraq in exchange for perhaps a stronger line being taken against Israel and the Palestinian issue?


    Andrew Marr:

    No. I don't think that the relationship between Blair and Bush is of a deal-making kind in that sense. Tony Blair has the singular and rather unusual habit for a politician of saying exactly the same thing in private that he does in public. And what he says in private and in public is that the Iraqi question is in Britain's national interests to resolve. It's not simply about following the Americans. He agrees with Bush about Iraq. He just thinks that at the same time it is important to go through the United Nations and important to remember the Israeli/Palestinian question too.

    So he would urge Bush to be doing these other things - not as part of deal because, let's face it, Britain hasn't got many cards in her hands compared with an American president. But because he thinks that's a more effective way of doing it.


    Newshost:

    Ian Miller, Cambridge, UK: Is military action the least dangerous option in handling Saddam Hussein?


    Andrew Marr:

    That's a question that everybody is desperately trying to answer. You can say that containment has worked so far. Saddam Hussein has not been able to achieve nuclear weapons. He has not been able to attack anybody else since the no-fly zones were imposed and all those bombing raids and so on - he has been contained.

    The argument that the document makes is that all the way through that process, he's been building up his weapons again and that there will come a time when he does have nuclear weapons and the missiles able to lob them at western Europe and elsewhere and that that time is not so far away that you can afford to be relaxed about it. Therefore, better get him now - better stop him now while you still can because if you leave it for a long time he will say I've got nuclear weapons and I'm prepared to use them and you can't allow that to happen. Now, which is the more dangerous - I'm I am glad to say I am not a politician.


    Newshost:

    John S, UK: Although it is worrying that Saddam Hussein has weapons capable of mass warfare, shouldn't we be careful not turn the UN into a machine that is biased against the Arab nations?


    Andrew Marr:

    It is very important that the UN is seen all round the world as an unbiased organisation. The trouble is of course when the UN was first set up with its Security Council permanent members - Britain, Russia, China, America and so on - that reflected a kind of underlying power balance in the world. There were the Americans on the one side, there was still then effectively the British Empire, I suppose, the Russians enormously militarily strong. These days it's not like that - the Americans are the last super power left standing and there is an imbalance between the voting and the dispersed votes of the United Nations and the raw, ruthless military situation in the world today where the United Nations is enormously more powerful than anybody else. So there is that problem. In many respects, what George Bush was saying to the United Nations is if you want to be taken seriously then you have to do what we ask in terms of Iraq. Now that's a fairly momentous moment.


    Newshost:

    Isn't there a problem, if one thinks about the recent vote in the UN over the issue of Ramallah and Yasser Arafat's headquarters there where I think most of the UN Security Council voted for a resolution calling for tanks to be withdrawn, America abstained - it didn't vote. Is that the kind of thing that Tony Blair would phone up and say - look Mr Bush, this isn't good if we're trying to build a big coalition against Iraq?


    Andrew Marr:

    The British line - the British behaviour on this has always been different from the Americans. Europe as a whole, don't let's forget, subsidised Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority and provided all sorts of help, practical and financial, to keep it going for a very long time.

    Tony Blair last time he was in the region went to visit Yasser Arafat and tries to maintain a kind of balance between Mr Sharon and Mr Arafat when he speaks. The Americans, of course, are not like that at all. They see Yasser Arafat in much, much darker, starker ways and are much more clearly pro-Israel. To that extent Tony Blair is a European politician rather than an Atlantic politician. But the Americans seem to be way beyond easy influence on this.


    Newshost:

    Simon, Binfield, UK: How can the UK afford to go to war, with the current state of the National Health and education system?


    Andrew Marr:

    We, the taxpayers, pay for a relative expensive military system - 5% of GDP. Nothing like the Americans, but considerably more than almost every other country except for the French in Europe. Therefore there is standing by a modest, but nonetheless fairly powerful military force and the extra cost of using it so far hasn't been enough to worry the Treasury.


    Newshost:

    Nathan, Bury St Edmunds: Do you think the evidence shown today is sufficient to push for military action to stop Saddam's regime in its tracks?


    Andrew Marr:

    I think it's impossible to argue from what we've seen today that there is no problem in Iraq. But I think there's a very long way to get from that to launching a war against Iraq. It is absolutely clear that the British Government as well as the other European governments want to go through the proper United Nations process. The Americans, we all know, are extremely impatient. It is that absolutely crucial argument that is going dominate the politics really of the world for the next few weeks and maybe months.


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