Reuter Reports PRIME Minister Tony Blair insisted yesterday that Iraq was lying over weapons of mass destruction and called next week's report by U.N. arms inspectors an “important date” in the build-up to possible war.

As a quarter of Britain's standing army readied for a possible war, Blair reiterated that London and Washington reserved the right to attack Iraq without fresh United Nations backing if Iraq were to defy calls to disarm. “The inspectors are saying that the Iraqis have not been cooperating properly,” Blair told senior legislators. “But let us wait and see and get their full report on the 27th of January. It's an important date but it's not necessarily the final date,” he said. Britain has been the United States' staunchest ally in its bid to rid Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of suspected weapons of mass destruction. Thousands of British and U.S. troops have moved into the Gulf region.

Blair said the military build-up and international pressure were pushing Saddam's government close to breaking point. “As we speak, we can't tell what is going to happen in the next few weeks... But they are rattled, they are weakening,” he said. Blair was confident that U.N. inspectors in Iraq would find enough evidence to win over sceptical Britons, nearly half of whom now oppose war with Iraq, according to a new opinion poll. “When and if that time came, people would find the reasons acceptable and satisfactory because there is no other route available to us,” he said. “The circumstances will be changed by what the inspectors find.” An ICM poll in the Guardian yesterday showed opposition to war with Iraq had now reached 47 percent, up from 37 percent three months ago.

The telephone poll of 1'002 adults put support for an invasion at 30 percent, down from 42 percent.

Blair dismissed Iraq's claims to have no banned weapons. “What we are sure of is chemical and biological weapons. What we believe they are doing is trying to reconstitute their nuclear programme,” he said. “How far along the path they have got on that we can't be sure.” Blair said inspections could not go on for ever, but he refused to give any timescale. He will meet U.S. President George W. Bush at Camp David on January 31, four days after the inspectors report to the U.N. While Blair said a new U.N. resolution was “highly desirable” to authorise any attack on Iraq he said the U.S. and Britain would reserve the right to go ahead without the U.N. if a Security Council member vetoed such a resolution. “You've got to have that qualification,” he said, adding that he fully expected the Security Council to back a second mandate if the U.N. inspectors provided evidence of a breach of the first, passed in November, which sent them into Iraq. “We mustn't give a signal to Saddam that there is a way out of this. There is no way out...other than disarming weapons of mass destruction.”