THE LEGAL and political basis for the war in Iraq was thrown into doubt yesterday when Jack Straw declared that uncovering Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction was "not crucially important".
The Foreign Secretary's comments added to the confusion over the capacity of the former Iraqi leader to unleash chemical or biological weapons, which in the weeks before the Allied invasion had been declared an imminent threat to Britain and the West.
Mr Straw was accused of rewriting history after he appeared to undermine the Government's confident claim that Saddam held up to 10,000 litres of anthrax, declaring: "Ten thousand litres is one third of one petrol tanker. Whether or not we are able to find one third of one petrol tanker in a country twice the size of France remains to be seen."
Asked about Iraq's arsenal on BBC Radio 4, he said only: "I hope there will be further evidence of literal finds." Significantly, Mr Straw used the past tense to describe Iraq's arsenal, saying: "It certainly did exist. There is no question about that, and the Blix report suggested that it still existed."
Challenged on the importance of a fresh weapons find, he said: "It's not crucially important for this reason ... The evidence in respect of Iraq was so strong that the Security Council on the 8th of November said unanimously that Iraq's proliferation and possession of the weapons of mass destruction and unlawful missile systems, as well as its defiance of the United Nations, pose - and I quote - "a threat to international peace and security".
Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister, said: "Jack Straw is trying to reinvent history. All these claims about WMD are built on sand. If they do not find these weapons, it takes away the only conceivable justification for conducting this war.
"It shows the real reasons for this war: the superpower flexing its muscles and looking after resources, in this case petroleum."
Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, insisted yesterday that the existence of weapons of mass destruction was "the sole justification" for war and confidently predicted that such weapons would eventually be found, pointing to finds of biological protection suits and a vehicle thought to be a mobile biological weapons laboratory.
But Mr Straw's comments were the latest in a series of shifting statements from cabinet ministers about the whereabouts of Saddam's weaponry, the alleged threat from …