Intelligence revealing that Saddam Hussein's WMD had been dismantled was received by the Government just days before Tony Blair sent troops into the country, senior officials have admitted.
Ministers were also given repeated warnings that intelligence gathered on Iraq's weapons programmes was unreliable. However, Mr Blair told the Commons that Saddam Hussein did have chemical and biological weapons as he prepared the way for the invasion in March 2003.
Sir William Ehrman, who was a senior official within the Foreign Office, told the inquiry into the Iraq war yesterday that "in the final days before military action", the department received information that Iraq's chemical and biological weapons may have remained broken up.
"On 10 March we got a report saying that the chemical weapons might have remained disassembled, that Saddam hadn't ordered their re-assembly, and he might lack warheads capable of effective dispersal of agents," said Sir William. Figures within the Foreign Office also doubted whether Iraq had a large number of long-range missiles, Sir John Chilcot's inquiry heard. A series of memos from officials within Whitehall described the intelligence coming out of Iraq as "sporadic and patchy". It was queried as having "limited" value as late as September 2002.
The inquiry was told how officials within the Foreign Office had become convinced that the regime in Baghdad was developing chemical and biological weapons. When it received intelligence contradicting the claim in March 2003, this was discounted. "There was contradictory intelligence, so I don't think it invalidated the point about what weapons [Saddam] had," Sir William said. "It was more about their use. Even if they were disassembled the [chemical or biological] agents still existed."
It also emerged that a secret paper drawn up in the summer of 2002, which pointed to Iraq as a potential threat, was based almost entirely on uncorroborated and outdated assumptions. Tim Dowse, the former head of counter-proliferation at the Foreign Office, said the document was based on information obtained before weapons inspectors were thrown out of the country in 1998. "We had got ourselves in a particular mindset," Mr Dowse said.
Nevertheless, there were repeated warnings to ministers about the reliability of the intelligence on Iraq. In April 2000, intelligence was said to be "limited to chemical weapons". By May 2001, knowledge of major weapons programmes was described as "patchy"; by March 2002 it was "sporadic and patchy". Advisers admitted in August they knew "very little" about Iraq's chemical and biological weapons, while intelligence information "remained limited" by September.
It was from that point that more intelligence seemed to emerge, Sir William said. Sir Lawrence Freedman, a member of the inquiry panel, asked whether it had occurred to him that this upsurge "might not have been wholly coincidental". Sir William said: "No."
Mr Dowse said that the Government's now notorious claim that Saddam Hussein had WMD he could use within 45 minutes, made in a dossier published ahead of the 2003 invasion, had never meant to refer to weapons that could reach other countries. He said the claim had not come as a surprise to many experts, who all assumed it referred to short-range weapons.
"Speaking personally, when I saw the 45-minutes report, I did not give it particular significance because it didn't seem out of line with what we generally assessed to be Iraq's intentions and capabilities with regard to chemical weapons," he said. "It certainly took on a rather iconic status that I don't think that those of us who saw the initial report really gave it." He added: "I don't think we ever said that it was for use in a ballistic missile."
Mr Dowse also admitted that another passage in the dossier, which detailed how aluminium tubes found in Iraq could be used in the production of nuclear weapons, was included at the last minute after the tubes were mentioned by the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, during a television interview.
Iraq not 'top of list' of threats
Iraq had not been "top of the list" of concerns within the Foreign Office before the 2003 invasion. "In terms of my concerns on coming in to the job in 2001, I would say we put Libya and Iran ahead of Iraq," Mr Dowse said. Sir William added that at no time did the Government receive any evidence that Saddam Hussein was handing WMD to terrorist groups. "Obviously in the future we couldn't know what might happen," he said.
He even revealed that Iraq had "stepped further back" from its connections with terrorist groups after the 9/11 terror attacks on the US. Sir William said that the Foreign Office never received any evidence that there was a connection between Iraq and al-Qa'ida.
Lack of WMD a 'PR disaster'
The inquiry also learnt that Tony Blair's confident declaration in December 2003 that weapons inspectors had already found "massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories" prompted officials to warn against declaring victory prematurely. Mr Dowse said that if no weapons were found after such statements, it would create a "disaster in PR terms" for the Government.
When asked about Mr Blair's comments, Mr Dowse said: "I did not advise him to use those words." He added that it prompted him to warn the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, not to make the same predictions. "Some key elements of reporting [from Iraq] were simply wrong," Mr Dowse said.
He admitted that no significant weapons had been discovered since the invasion. Asked about the failure of inspectors to find WMD stocks in many of the sites identified by intelligence sources, Sir William said: "Four out of 10 as a strike rate is pretty good." In reply, Sir Lawrence stated: "Not when you are going to war."
Blair's words... and what his officials told the inquiry
* Blair, September 2002 dossier:
"What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and that he has been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme.
Sir William Ehrman stated intelligence was "limited" in April 2000, "patchy" in May 2001, "sporadic and patchy" in March 2002, and that officials knew "very little" in August. Intelligence remained "limited" in September.
* Blair, September 2002 dossier:
"His military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them. I am quite clear that Saddam will go to extreme lengths, indeed has already done so, to hide these weapons and avoid giving them up.
Tim Dowse, who was head of counter-proliferation at the Foreign Office: "Speaking personally, when I saw the 45 minutes report, I did not give it particular significance because it didn't seem out of line with what we generally assessed to be Iraq's intentions and capabilities with regard to chemical weapons... I don't think we ever said that it was for use in a ballistic missile."
* Blair, March 2003, House of Commons:
"Iraq continues to deny it has any WMD, though no serious intelligence service anywhere in the world believes them.
Sir William Ehrman: "We did, I think on March 10, get a report that chemical weapons might have remained disassembled and Saddam hadn't yet ordered their assembly. There was also a suggestion that Iraq might lack warheads capable of effective dispersal of agents."
* Blair, December 2003, interview:
"The Iraq Survey Group has already found massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories, workings by scientists, plans to develop long range ballistic missiles.
Tim Dowse: "I did not advise him to use those words." He added that nothing of "significance" had been found in Iraq since the invasion.