British and American intelligence services look set to share the blame for the spectacular failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
President George Bush is to order a full investigation of US intelligence failures in Iraq, a senior White House official said last night, while politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are preparing to argue that MI6 and the CIA supplied a false picture of Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons stockpile.
An independent commission in Washington will look at the information that the US had before the war last year and what has been discovered since the invasion of Iraq. Tony Blair, who will modify his insistence that the Iraqi dictator possessed WMD, was "aware" of the US position last night, said a spokesman.
Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, fuelled speculation yesterday that the intelligence services could eventually be in the British Government's sights. He said: "I saw evidence that was categoric on Saddam possessing chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. Now I saw that intelligence evidence, so did the Prime Minister, so did other cabinet ministers. That informed our decision to go to topple him. I think we were right in doing so, but let's wait and see what the jury finds in the end."
Mr Blair will come under pressure on the issue when he appears before the Commons Liaison Committee of senior backbenchers tomorrow. It is also likely to feature heavily in a Commons debate on Wednesday on Lord Hutton's report on the death of David Kelly.
Until now, the Prime Minister has confidently claimed that it is only a matter of time before WMD stocks are found by inspectors. But he has looked increasingly isolated as President Bush moves towards an admission that the intelligence used to justify war was flawed.
Mr Blair is likely to stop short of conceding this week that WMD may never be found, but he will change tack by highlighting the need for an explanation of the Iraq Survey Group's failure to uncover them after an eight-month search.
After a turbulent week dominated by the Commons vote on university tuition fees and the Hutton report, Downing Street acknowledges that the issue of WMD is about to return to the political centre stage.
Michael Howard, the Tory leader, will try to exploit government discomfort on the aftermath of the Iraq war by demanding an independent inquiry into intelligence supplied to ministers. "It is of utmost importance that we try to find out what went wrong with the intelligence, [and] if the intelligence community felt there were WMD," he said yesterday. "It is now becoming clear that the weapons weren't there."
The likelihood of such an inquiry in the US will increase the pressure on Mr Blair to follow suit, although his spokesman merely restated the Government's position last night that "the Iraq Survey Group needs to continue its work''.
While Mr Bush appeared only a few days ago to be cool about the idea of an inquiry, his position appeared to change over the weekend. Sources said Vice-President Dick Cheney had begun talking to members of Congress in private about setting an inquiry in motion.
Mr Bush has been seriously undermined by remarks last week about US intelligence by David Kay, until recently head of the Iraq Survey Group. Mr Kay said the intelligence provided to the White House to justify the invasion was "almost all wrong" and that an inquiry into the apparent failings of American intelligence was necessary.
Trent Lott, a senior Republican senator, said he would probably support the idea of an inquiry. "I think we have major problems with our intelligence community. I think we need to take a look at a complete overhaul ... I have real problems with the job they've done."
The Kay furore eliminated any sense of relief that the US administration may have felt over the mostly clean bill of health given to the Blair government by the Hutton report.
The question that has still not been squarely addressed on either side of the Atlantic is how did it happen that intelligence provided by services in America and in Britain was apparently so wide of the mark.
John McCain, the Arizona senator, said: "We need to not only know what happened, but know what steps are necessary to prevent the US from ever being misinformed again."Reuse content