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Blair says mass weapons may never be discovered

LONDON -- Britain's Tony Blair admitted yesterday that biological and chemical weapons, which he once insisted Saddam Hussein had primed for use, may never be found.

In testimony to a committee of senior parliamentarians, 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 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 banned 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 Hussein was toppled, no such weapons have been found. Blair's public trust ratings have withered over the same period.

Blair said that the absence of banned weapons did not mean Hussein posed no threat to the region and to the world 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."

Many in Blair's Labor Party have not forgiven him for the war and his ''shoulder-to-shoulder" stance with Bush since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the United States.

Critics contend Blair has secured little in return.

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

He said full transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi government, and an emphasis on building up domestic forces rather than pouring in more foreign troops, was a British blueprint.

''If you look at what has happened in Iraq recently . . . I think we have had a very great deal of influence," he said.

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