British Prime Minister Tony Blair was Saturday night at the center of an embarrassing row after the most senior US official in Baghdad bluntly rejected Blair's assertion that secret weapons laboratories had been discovered in Iraq.
In a Christmas message to British troops, Blair claimed there was "massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine labor-atories." The Iraqi Survey Group (ISG) had unearthed compelling evidence that showed former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had attempted to "conceal weapons," the prime minister said.
But in an interview yesterday, Paul Bremer, the Bush administration's top official in Baghdad, flatly dismissed the claim as untrue -- without realizing its source was Blair.
It was, he suggested, a "red herring," probably put about by someone opposed to military action in Iraq who wanted to undermine the coalition.
"I don't know where those words come from but that is not what [ISG chief] David Kay has said," he told ITV1's Jonathan Dimbleby TV program. "It sounds like a bit of a red herring to me."
With confusion apparently growing between London and Washington over weapons of mass destruction, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell said he would be pressing ministers when parliament returned in the New Year on what precisely the government knew.
"It is high time the prime minister cleared this matter up once and for all," he said.
Blair made his remarks in a pre-Christmas interview with the British Forces Broadcasting Service, heard by the 10,000 British troops stationed in southern Iraq. In recent days, senior Whitehall officials have raised the extraordinary possibility that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction after all -- but believed he did after being misled by his own advisors.
In his interview on Saturday, Bremer was forced to pull back when told the claims of hidden weapons laboratories were made by Blair.
"There is actually a lot of evidence that has been made public," he said, adding that this included "clear evidence" of ongoing biological and chemical programs, as well as rocket production that violated UN Security Council resolutions. Bremer also dismissed Hans Blix, the former chief UN weapons inspector, as "out of touch."
Earlier, Blix had ridiculed the prime minister's laboratories claim as "innuendo." It was "increasingly clear" that Saddam did not have any weapons of mass destruction left when US and British forces invaded Iraq, he said.