UK Politics

Iraq intelligence 'not very substantial' says Prescott

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Media captionLord Prescott: "I felt a little bit nervous about the conclusions...of pretty limited intelligence"

The intelligence on Iraq's weapons threat was not "very substantial", former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott has said.

He told the Iraq inquiry he was "nervous" about the intelligence being presented in 2002 - some of which he said was based on "tittle-tattle".

However, he said he did not have the knowledge to challenge the assessments.

Nevertheless, he defended the military action taken as "legal" and said he would take the same decision again.

Lord Prescott, deputy prime minister between 1997 and 2007, is the last senior former Labour minister to be giving evidence to the Chilcot inquiry into the war.

'Sympathies'

The inquiry is looking at the UK's role in the build-up to the war and the handling of its aftermath, and is expected to publish its report around the end of the year.

In an interview in December, Lord Prescott expressed some doubts about the war.

However, he told the inquiry that MPs had backed the action and that "democratic accountability had been satisfied".

While former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith had a "difficult decision" to make before deciding the war was legal, he said he accepted the judgement that military action was justified on basis of existing UN disarmament resolutions.

While it was "fashionable" to criticise Tony Blair for taking the UK to war, he said the former prime minister had "agonised" over the death of every British soldier.

In his opening statement, he expressed his "deepest sympathies" to the relatives of the 179 British service personnel killed in Iraq.

Lord Prescott, the final witness in the current round of public hearings, said he attended 23 out of 28 Cabinet meetings which discussed UK policy towards Iraq as well as holding a number of private meetings with Mr Blair.

Intelligence doubts

Asked about the intelligence shown to ministers about Iraq in 2002, Mr Prescott said had "no evidence" it was wrong but admitted he was a "little bit nervous about the conclusions on what I seemed to think was pretty limited intelligence".

"When I kept reading them, I kept thinking to myself, 'is this intelligence?", he said.

Describing it as "basically what you have heard somewhere and what somebody else has told somebody", he suggested the conclusions drawn on the back of it "were a little ahead" of the evidence.

"So I got the feeling it wasn't very substantial," he said.

With hindsight, he said recommendations made by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) "were frankly wrong and built too much on a little information".

"That was my impression at the time but, you know, I just thought 'well this is the intelligence document, this is what you have'.

"It seems robust but not enough to justify to that. Certainly what they do in intelligence is a bit of tittle-tattle here and a bit more information there."

However, he said he was certain that Saddam Hussein presented a real threat to regional security as he had attacked both Kuwait and Iran in recent years.

'Maintaining unity'

He said the UK's "priority" was to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis and suggested it was a "real achievement" for Tony Blair to persuade the US to try and get UN support for action against Iraq.

But he said US policy towards Iraq had been one of regime change since the Clinton presidency and the Bush administration did not want to be "diverted" from this course by diplomatic negotiations.

From conversations with former US Vice President Dick Cheney - who he described as a "hard-liner" - he said he got the impression Iraq was "unfinished business".

He described UK-led efforts to get a second UN resolution in early 2003 specifically authorising military action as "absolutely critical".

Asked about Cabinet discussions in the run-up to the war, he said he saw his job to "maintain unity" over the issue, suggesting that Labour was haunted by internal splits in the party in the 1970s and 1980s.

"There was a desire to maintain unity. Iraq could have split it if the Cabinet had said no, no no."

Ministers had to decide whether "to stay in or get out" and with the exception of Robin Cook and Clare Short - who both ultimately resigned - he said his colleagues had clearly reconciled any reservations they may have had.

Lord Prescott's appearance was the final scheduled public hearing, but inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot said witnesses could be recalled in the autumn if the committee felt the need to clear up "conflicts or gaps in the evidence".

Sir John also said his five-member panel planned to visit Iraq in the autumn to hear "Iraqi perspectives" and see first-hand the consequences of British troops' six-year presence in the country.

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