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Last Updated: Friday, 12 September, 2003, 11:59 GMT 12:59 UK
Blair 'right to over-ride terror warnings'
Tony Blair
Tony Blair got the warning a month before the war
The prime minister was right to "exercise his judgement" and take Britain to war with Iraq despite warnings that it could increase the risk of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, the health secretary has insisted.

John Reid argued that Tony Blair had looked at a range of material before deciding that Saddam Hussein was too much of a threat to leave alone.

Mr Reid jumped to the prime minister's defence the day after a report by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) revealed that Mr Blair had been warned of the risks of going to war with Iraq a month before military action began.

You are entitled to disagree with that ... what you are not entitled to do is to say ... that in so doing he lied and cheated because he did not and that was what was cleared by the intelligence committee
John Reid

The report said September's key dossier was not "sexed up", but it adds that ahead of the war Mr Blair was told the threat from al-Qaeda and allied terrorist groups could be made worse by invading Iraq.

Downing Street on Friday said senior ministers including Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Home Secretary David Blunkett and Chancellor Gordon Brown had also seen the warning from intelligence chiefs.

The prime minister, who has repeatedly argued that disarming Iraq was needed to stop terrorists getting chemical or biological weapons, told the ISC he had acknowledged the dangers but argued inaction posed greater risks.

Rogue states

Lord Heseltine, former defence secretary under Margaret Thatcher's administration, said it was a "devastating indictment" of the government's case for war.

But Mr Reid said the combination of the threat from Saddam Hussein and terrorists coming together with rogue states producing WMD was "so great" that it justified Mr Blair's decision.

John Reid
Reid defended the prime minister's decision
"He took a decision ... that by either appeasing or backing off that would not in the long run give us a risk that was less than taking on terrorism and getting rid of the threat that was Saddam Hussein," Mr Reid told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"I think that was right at the time. I think the world is a less dangerous place. I think the people of Iraq know that and I think in the long term, it will be proven to have been right."

Mr Reid acknowledged that many people disagreed"with Mr Blair's judgement, which took into account the long term threat Saddam would pose to this country.

But he went on: "You can't change the goalposts by saying we start with an accusation that he lied, sexed up and cheated and then when the answer to that after a study is he did none of these things say: 'But we are going to accuse him of exercising his judgement'. That's what he was elected to do."

Military action

Later Mr Blair's spokesman said: "The prime minister is elected to lead and has to make judgements and when you are dealing with issues of terrorism, issues of weapons of mass destruction, that is clearly not a precise science.

"These are obviously subjective judgments. We are not talking about risk-free options - and terrorism and the development of WMD are not alternatives. It's not a question of either-or."

But Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said that while Mr Blair was entitled to make the decision, he must now explain why he had amid public concern over the dossier.

"The country is entitled to know," he said.

The ISC report says that in February this year, the JIC said there was no intelligence that Iraq had provided chemical or biological materials to al-Qaeda.

It remains my judgement and I suppose time will tell whether it's true or it's not true
Tony Blair

"The JIC assessed that al-Qaeda and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq.

"The JIC assessed that any collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists, not necessarily al-Qaeda."

The committee raised the issue when its members privately questioned Mr Blair.

He told them: "One of the most difficult aspects of this is that there was obviously a danger that in attacking Iraq you ended up provoking the very thing you were trying to avoid.

"On the other hand I think you had to ask the question: 'Could you really, as a result of that fear, leave the possibility that in time this developed into a nexus between terrorism and WMD in any event?'

"This is where you've got to make your judgement about this. But this is my judgement and it remains my judgement and I suppose time will tell whether it's true or it's not true."

The BBC's James Landale
"Tony Blair has spent months defending the war... now he is facing a new line of attack"

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