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Thursday, 28 February, 2002, 21:11 GMT
UK and US discuss weapons threat
Tony Blair and 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

The two premiers discussed how to respond to the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD) during a lunchtime telephone call on Thursday.

The prime minister's official spokesman said: "They did touch on the continuing fight against terrorism and second phase issues such as weapons of mass destruction.

"They also touched on issues such as concerted efforts to deal with the drugs problem in Afghanistan and trying to push for progress in the Middle East."

While the WMD issue had to be addressed, no decisions had been taken yet on the best strategy for dealing with them, the spokesman said.

President Bush is believed to be keen to act militarily against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who has long been accused by the West of seeking to acquire WMD capability.

Threat to stability

Mr Blair is expected to go to the US in April for talks with President Bush, which are likely to cover the threat posed by Iraq and similar states.

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."

Repressive regime

He said: "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

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'

Mr Bush has threatened unspecified consequences against Iraq unless UN weapons inspectors, thrown out in 1998, are allowed back into the country.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein has accused the US of bullying

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".

Professor Alastair Hay, of the University of Leeds, said: "The UN inspectors found that Iraq had a very large chemical and biological weapons programme.

"They found that they had made many types of chemical agents - mustard gas and nerve gases. They also found some old munitions," he told BBC News.

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

The BBC's Bridget Kendall
"The US needs regional bases"
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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