Hoon downbeat on WMD as Tories push for full debate

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To find Saddam Hussein's suspected secret arsenal of biological and chemical weapons could take a "great deal of time", Geoff Hoon admitted yesterday. The Secretary of State for Defence produced his most downbeat analysis of the chances of uncovering weapons of mass destruction (WMD) yet as the Conservatives decided to call a full-scale Commons debate on the build-up to the invasion of Iraq.

The Conservatives' move could trigger rebellion within the Labour ranks next Wednesday as the opposition parties join forces to demand an independent judicial inquiry into the war.

Mr Hoonmounted a vigorous defence of the Government's decision to go to war. But he conceded the hunt for WMD was proving difficult, with weapons inspectors operating at a disadvantage in such a large country.The weapons could be concealed "in a hole in the desert" and the Allies depended on finding someone to direct them to that hiding-place, he said.

So far "astonishing" details of the "deception policy" used by Saddam to hide his WMD had been uncovered by the Iraq Survey Group, the Defence Secretary said. "Obviously it's going to take us a great deal of time to dig up the country to find that evidence."

Rejecting the suggestion that such material never existed, Mr Hoon said: "There was a pattern of intelligence demonstrating Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and had the programmes to produce those weapons. We have not found the physical evidence as yet of weapons of mass destruction but what we have found are determined efforts, not only to deceive, but also determined efforts to develop those programmes to produce weapons of mass destruction."

Mr Hoon's speech failed to win over the opposition. Paul Keetch, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said: "Had comments like the one Mr Hoon expressed today about weapons of mass destruction been stated more candidly before military action, it is questionable whether the Government would have been able to pursue the same course of action."

The shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Ancram, said: "The Government have previously stressed there is 'absolutely no doubt' weapons of mass destruction will be found. Now they are back-tracking."

Mr Hoon would not be pinned down on when British troops could leave Iraq. Asked if they could still be in the country in three years' time, he said he was "cautious about putting any timescale on this because the nature of our involvement might change".

He sidestepped questions on whether he would resign if the Hutton inquiry produced a damning verdict regarding his conduct in the David Kelly affair. But he denied incompetence as Secretary of State, saying: "I have just completed my fourth year in the job which must indicate that someone judges that I am capable of completing the job. It is important I am allowed to get on with my job."