London (CNSNews.com) - The leader of Britain's Conservative Party called on Prime Minister Tony Blair to resign Thursday as the U.K. government continued to face questions about its use of pre-war intelligence on Iraq.
Michael Howard said that Blair failed to ask basic questions about the information that convinced the Blair administration to support the U.S.-led war.
In particular, Howard seized on a claim in a September 2002 dossier released by the government on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs. The document said that Iraqi forces could launch chemical or biological attacks within 45 minutes.
"Iraq's military forces are able to use chemical and biological weapons, with command, control and logistical arrangements in place," the dossier stated. "The Iraqi military are able to deploy these weapons within 45 minutes of a decision to do so."
Blair admitted this week that he did not know that the claim referred only to battlefield munitions and not to strategic weapons that could potentially hit British forces in the Persian Gulf region and the Mediterranean.
Other sections of the report indicated that Saddam had the capability to attack neighboring countries and military installations in the region.
"It became clear yesterday that the prime minister took us to war without bothering to ask a simple and obvious question," Howard said. "That question is whether the chemical and biological weapons he thought Iraq had could be used only on the battlefield, or put on the end of a missile to be fired at British troops in Cyprus."
"I cannot imagine a more serious dereliction of duty by a prime minister than failing to ask that basic question," he said. "This is a most grave state of affairs. If I were prime minister, and had failed to ask this basic question, I would seriously be considering my position."
Blair has said that the importance of the 45-minute claim has been exaggerated in the aftermath of the Hutton Inquiry, which last week cleared the government of wrongdoing but criticized the British Broadcasting Corp.'s editorial processes.
A story by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan put into motion a chain of events that eventually led to the suicide of a government weapons expert and sparked the inquiry.
Gilligan's report, which was criticized by Lord Hutton, called into question the 45-minute claim and the government's honesty in including it in the dossier.
On Thursday, Blair's official spokesman told reporters that the British media were trying to re-write history by boosting the importance of the claim.
"The 45-minute point played little part subsequent to the dossier in the discussion about Iraq," the spokesman said. "We never claimed that Saddam Hussein could attack the U.K. in 45 minutes or within any time scale.
"The prime minister and the government believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was able to deploy them both in a tactical and strategic way. We never claimed in the dossier that the 45 minutes referred to ballistic missiles in this way," he said.
During questioning in front of the House of Commons defense select committee, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon also played down the claim.
"Since this was not a big issue at the time, it was not a matter we discussed," Hoon said.
Earlier this week, Blair announced that a committee would be set up to examine the use of intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs, following a similar decision by President Bush. The British committee held its first meeting on Thursday.
Conservative pressure on Blair has increased in recent months. In October of last year, former leader Iain Duncan Smith used a speech to the annual party conference to call for Blair's resignation for his alleged role in the naming of weapons expert David Kelly.
Duncan Smith was later replaced by Howard in an unrelated no-confidence vote. Since taking the helm, Howard has repeatedly attacked the prime minister over the Kelly affair and the use of intelligence on Iraq.
See Previous Stories:
Conservative Leader Calls On Blair To Resign (Oct. 9, 2003)
British Report: Saddam Able to Launch Bioweapons (Sept. 24, 2002)
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