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Blair mass-weapon confession

London, July 6 (Reuters): Britain’s Tony Blair admitted today that biological and chemical weapons, which he once insisted Saddam Hussein had primed for use, may never be found.

In parliamentary testimony, the Prime Minister also insisted he had exerted real influence over Washington’s approach to post-war Iraq and defended his close ties with President George W. Bush. “We know Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction but we know we haven’t found them,” Blair said. “I have to accept we have not found them, that we may not find them.”

Blair persuaded reluctant British politicians to back war on Iraq last year on the basis that Baghdad had illegal weapons and could use them at any time.

A now notorious UK dossier, released in September 2002, said some of them could have been let loose within 45 minutes of an order to do so. Yet more than a year after Saddam was toppled, no such weapons have been found. Blair’s public trust ratings have withered over the same period.

Blair said the absence of banned weapons did not mean Saddam posed no threat to the region and to world stability, and that he was glad he had been deposed. “They could have been removed, they could have been hidden, they could have been destroyed,” he said. “The truth is, he was a threat.”

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the Iraq Survey Group, scouring Iraq for lethal weapons, was looking into the possibility they had been moved abroad.

“They’re looking at those issues to determine what happened to those weapons of mass destruction,” McClellan said. “We know that he had them because he used them in the past against his own people and against a neighbouring country.” Many in Blair’s Labour Party have not forgiven him for the war and his “shoulder-to-shoulder” stance with Bush since the September 11 attacks on the US. Critics claim the premier has secured little in return.

“I can see particularly within my own political family, it’s a problem sometimes,” Blair said, but refused to give up London’s closeness with Washington despite disagreements over issues like climate change.

Marine freed

Kidnappers in Iraq released today a Lebanese-born US Marine they were once thought to have decapitated, his brother said.

Wassef Ali Hassoun’s brother Sami, speaking from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, said his family had received word Hassoun was alive and had been freed in the early hours.

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