'There are no shining weapons'
The man in charge of a $300-million hunt for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction last night admitted that no weapon stocks had been found, and that all a three-month search had uncovered was a single vial containing a possible strain of biological agent.
According to a progress report by the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), delivered to the US Congress yesterday by its leader, David Kay, Saddam had taken no steps to revive his nuclear weapons plan since 1998, and had abandoned any large-scale chemical weapons programme more than a decade ago.
Instead his report focused on documentary, circumstantial and informers’ evidence which, Kay said, pointed to Saddam’s intentions to revive a weapons programme.
The vial contained a strain of a biological agent, botulinum, and was found hidden in the home of an Iraqi scientist. It was not clear when the vial was hidden.
The foreign secretary, Jack Straw, yesterday claimed that the report justified the war, arguing that it contained “incontrovertible evidence” that Saddam was in breach of UN resolutions.
Straw’s remarks were echoed yesterday by Tony Blair who stressed in remarks before the report was released, that the ISG had only been actively searching for weapons for two months.
But several weapons experts contacted yesterday argued that while the ISG, like the UN inspectors before them, appear to have uncovered discrepancies, its overall findings appeared to confirm that Iraq did not have an arsenal of banned weapons at the time of the March invasion.
Ministry of Defence sources said: “There are no shining weapons. We found everything, but those weapons.” They added: “It is impossible to predict what we will and won’t find.”
Kay, an American weapons expert and former UN inspector, stressed that his search was not over and that 120 ammunition dumps had yet to be examined.
He said he believed more biological weapons might yet be found, and claimed Saddam had also been planning to resume work on chemical and nuclear weapons at the time of the US and British invasion.
President George Bush has called on the Congress to provide a further Â£360-million to continue the search.
But Kay’s much awaited report was striking for its admissions on what had not been found.
In particular, the ISG appeared to have been convinced—in marked contrast to prewar claims from Washington and London—that Saddam’s chemical weapons (CW) and nuclear programme had been disbanded long before the invasion
“Multiple sources with varied access and reliability have told ISG that Iraq did not have a large, on-going, centrally controlled CW programme after 1991,” Kay told a congressional intelligence committee.
He said Saddam had also had nuclear ambitions, but he conceded: “To date we have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material.”
The ISG appeared to have more success in finding evidence of plans to build long-distance missiles, which were banned under UN rules.
Kay quoted “detainees and cooperative sources” as claiming that in 2000 Saddam had ordered the development of ballistic missiles with ranges of “at least 400km and up to 1 000 km”, and that the projects were hidden from UN inspectors when they arrived in late 2002.
The significance of the vial of botulinum reported found is unclear. In the mid-1990s Iraq admitted to the UN that it had made more than 19 000 litres of botulinum, but claimed to have destroyed it.
According to yesterday’s report, the vial contained a strain called C. botulinum Okra B. But the UN weapons experts said it was impossible to tell without further information when it had been made and how potent it was. The botulinum B strain is less potent than the A strain.
Joseph Cirincione, an independent weapons expert, said: “They are finding quite a bit of evidence, but it is pointing to conclusions that the White House is reluctant to draw—that there were no large-scale weapons stocks in Iraq, and possibly no stocks at all.”
But Straw insisted: “Kay’s report confirms how dangerous and deceitful the regime was and how the military action was indeed both justified and essential to remove the dangers.”
The government embarked on a huge public relations exercise last night to use the report to counter criticism both among Labour activists at Bournemouth this week and from governments in Europe that it had deliberately lied about Iraq’s weapons.
But the failure to find actual weapons is likely to fuel further criticism.
Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson, said: “This report once again puts the government on the defensive, and adds weight to the conclusion that we went to war against Iraq on a flawed prospectus.”
Main points of report