'Iraq can launch weapon at 45 minutes' notice'

London - Britain said on Tuesday that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had the military planning to launch a weapon of mass destruction at 45 minutes' notice.

A dossier setting out Prime Minister Tony Blair's case for action against Iraq said Saddam was building up stocks of chemical and biological weapons and was "ready to use them".

"Saddam Hussein is continuing to develop WMD (weapons of mass destruction), and with them the ability to inflict real damage upon the region, and the stability of the world," Blair said in the introduction to the dossier.

"His military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them."

Iraq responded immediately by saying that Blair's dossier was "baseless".

"Mr Blair is acting as part of the Zionist (Israeli) campaign against Iraq and all his claims are baseless," Iraqi culture minister Hamed Yousif Hummadi told reporters.

Blair's 50-page document contained little in the way of new evidence against Saddam, but sought to lay out the threat posed by him, give voice to the British government's allegations against him, and collate previous reports on his weapons stocks.

In one of its more bizarre pages, the dossier showed a drawing of one of Saddam's vast presidential sites and compared it to the relatively small total area taken up by Buckingham Palace, the official residence of Queen Elizabeth.

Blair, the only Western leader who has given unqualified support to President George W Bush in his "war on terrorism" since September 11 last year, hopes to use the dossier to win over sceptics within his own Labour party who are reluctant to back military action against Baghdad.

Parliament to debate Iraq

Blair was due to make a statement to kick off a full parliamentary debate on the issue of Iraq later on Tuesday.

The dossier outlined Saddam's efforts to rebuild chemical biological and nuclear weapons and develop medium-range ballistic missiles, which have been banned since the 1991 Gulf War.

It did not say that Saddam had a nuclear capability but did say his government had sought "significant quantities of uranium" from Africa, despite having no nuclear power programme which would justify needing it.

"Intelligence shows that the present Iraqi programme is almost certainly seeking an indigenous ability to enrich uranium to the level needed for a nuclear weapons," the dossier said.

"But Iraq needs certain key equipment, including gas centrifuge components and components for the production of fissile material before a nuclear bomb could be developed."

If sanctions remained effective, Iraq would not be able to produce nuclear weapons, it said. But if it obtained fissile material and other essential components from foreign sources, it could produce nuclear weapons in between one and two years.

The dossier also said Saddam had illegally retained up to 20 al-Hussein missiles with a range of 650km, capable of carrying chemical or biological warheads, and had used the absence of weapons inspectors to try to extend the range of its al-Samoud liquid propellant missiles to at least 200km, beyond the range allowed by the United Nations.

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