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Thursday, 28 February, 2002, 12:10 GMT
Blair hints at Iraq action
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair (l) and US President George W Bush
Blair and Bush: Concern at Iraq's weapons
Prime Minister Tony Blair has spoken of the importance of taking action against Iraq and other states which spread weapons of mass destruction.

He stopped short of endorsing US President George W Bush's characterisation of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil".

But he praised the president's leadership since the terrorist attacks of 11 September, and said he was "absolutely right" to raise the weapons issue.

Those who are engaged in spreading weapons of mass destruction are engaged in an evil trade and it is important that we... take action

Tony Blair

During an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Mr Blair was asked whether he endorsed Mr Bush's "axis of evil" statement.

He did not answer the question directly, but said it was vital to take action against all states which spread nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

"I certainly agree with him very strongly that weapons of mass destruction represent a real threat to world stability.

"Those who are engaged in spreading weapons of mass destruction are engaged in an evil trade and it is important that we make sure that we take action in respect of it.

"I think that George Bush has shown tremendous leadership since 11 September.

"He has acted always in a very measured way, in a calm way, but he is right to raise these issues and certainly he has our support in doing so."

The accumulation of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq poses a threat, not just to the region but to the wider world

Tony Blair

Downing Street later said Mr Blair would be speaking to Mr Bush on Thursday in one of their regular telephone calls.

The prime minister's spokesman said no decisions on possible action against Iraq had been taken but said discussions would continue on countries which "produce weapons of mass destruction".

Mr Blair said that while there was no direct evidence connecting Iraq to the events of 11 September, there was no doubt that Baghdad and its accumulation of such weapons was a concern.

"Saddam Hussein's regime is a regime that is deeply repressive to its people and is a real danger to the region.

"Heavens above, he used chemical weapons against his own people, so it is an issue and we have got to look at it, but we will look at it in a rational and calm way, as we have for the other issues.

"The accumulation of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq poses a threat, not just to the region but to the wider world.

"And I think George Bush was absolutely right to raise it.

"Now what action we take in respect of that, that is an open matter for discussion."

But asked if Britain was ready to use force against Iraq, Mr Blair said: "When we're ready to take action then we'll announce it. It is a real issue. It is a real threat. How we deal with it is an open matter."

Attack 'unwise'

US Secretary of State Colin Powell has said Washington was determined to see the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, removed from power and was "reserving all options" as to how that might be done.

And Mr Bush has threatened unspecified consequences against Iraq unless UN weapons inspectors are allowed back into the country.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein has accused the US of bullying
On Wednesday the Egyptian news agency Mena quoted diplomatic sources as saying Britain still hopes a diplomatic drive will allow the inspectors back in.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is to meet Iraq's foreign minister, Naji Sabri, in New York on 7 March to discuss the possible return of weapons inspectors to Iraq.

Mr Annan told reporters on Wednesday "any attack on Iraq at this stage would be unwise".

Washington meeting

Last weekend it was reported that Mr Blair will travel to Washington in April to discuss military action against Iraq with Mr Bush.

The Observer newspaper said Mr Blair would support action against Saddam Hussein if the Iraqi leader continued to ignore demands that he destroy his weapons of mass destruction.

Downing Street refused to discuss Mr Blair's travel plans but reportedly said: "The meeting will be to finalise phase two of the war against terrorism.

"Action against Iraq will be at the top of the agenda."

According to The Observer, London is preparing to publish detailed evidence of Iraq's nuclear capabilities, in order to convince a reluctant public.

The BBC's Caroline Thomsett
"The Prime Minister would not be drawn on military action against Iraq"
See also:

25 Feb 02 | Middle East
Annan to tackle Iraq over arms
24 Feb 02 | Middle East
Blair and Bush 'to discuss Iraq action'
23 Feb 02 | Middle East
Saddam scorns Bush 'baby talk'
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