LONDON – Saddam Hussein's assertion that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction is an "obvious falsehood" and his 12,000-page declaration to the United Nations falls short of the world body's demands, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Wednesday.
"This will fool nobody," Straw said in a statement. "If Saddam persists in this obvious falsehood, it will become clear that he has rejected the pathway to peace laid down in (U.N.) Resolution 1441."
Straw said Britain had not completed a full analysis of the declaration, which Iraq submitted in response to the U.N. Security Council resolution.
"But it is clear, even on a preliminary assessment, that it is not the full and complete declaration requested in Resolution 1441 and we wish to hear the views" of the U.N. weapons inspectors and nuclear regulatory body, Straw said.
The statement keeps Britain's position on Iraq closely aligned with that of the United States.
President Bush's spokesman said Wednesday there were serious omissions and problems with Iraq's weapons declaration. Bush met with his foreign policy team to consider his next step, but seemed set on a course that would likely put off potential military conflict for several weeks.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, who heads the U.N. nuclear regulatory agency, are scheduled to give the U.N. Security Council their preliminary assessment of the Iraqi declaration on Thursday.
Last week, ElBaradei said Saddam's 2,400-page nuclear dossier contains scant new information that might help inspectors hunt for hidden weaponry. Blix has made no comment on Iraq's chemical, biological and long-range missile declarations.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, where the 10 non-permanent members received only a sanitized version of the declaration Tuesday night, diplomats reacted cautiously to Straw's comments.
"We hope that this is not going to be a trigger," said Mauritius' U.N. Ambassador Jagdish Koonjul, an elected council member. "This is precisely why we have inspectors. Inspectors will go and see, and if any of the members have in their possession information which can help the inspectors do a better job, they should provide that information."
Ireland's U.N. Ambassador Richard Ryan, also a temporary member, said his government will study the declaration, listen to the inspectors, and then make an assessment "in an objective and measured way."
"I will wait to hear from Dr. Blix tomorrow," said China's U.N. Ambassador Wang Yingfan, a permanent council member whose country received the complete declaration over a week ago along with the United States, Britain, Russia and France.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has been the strongest international supporter of Bush's tough line on Iraq, told legislators Wednesday that Britain would give its formal response to the declaration after Christmas.
"I think most people who have looked at this obviously very long document are very skeptical about the claims that it makes, but I think it's important that we study it in detail," he said.
Among the "obvious omissions" Straw cited in the declaration was Saddam's failure to account for the weapons of mass destruction which were listed in the final report of the inspectors who left his country in 1998.
Straw said those inspectors had accused Saddam of possessing nerve agents and other "chemical precursors" and munitions.
"And it seems that Saddam Hussein has decided to continue the pretense that Iraq has had no (weapons of mass destruction) program since (inspectors) left in 1998," he charged.
Straw said Britain wanted Saddam's declaration tested "by hard questions and robust inspections" and that it would complete its full analysis of his statement as inspections continued.
"Saddam can be in no doubt by now that Resolution 1441 offers him the final opportunity to comply honestly and openly," said the foreign secretary.
Earlier, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Britain hopes to win the agreement of the U.N. Security Council for military action if Saddam is found to have weapons of mass destruction but has the right to act on its own if necessary.
"We do not require the specific agreement of the Security Council," Hoon told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "It is always the prerogative of individual members of the Security Council to take such decisions."
"It has been clearly set out in Security Council Resolution 1441 that there would be a further discussion of the situation in Iraq before any military action was launched," Hoon said. "And obviously the United Kingdom, as a permanent member of that Security Council, would participate in that discussion."
Hoon said it was important that member nations be prepared for military action if the Security Council decides it is necessary, although he added that such preparations did not mean war was inevitable.
"What we are doing is preparing for the event of military action being necessary," he said. "But I want to emphasize that no decision has been taken to launch military action."