The scandal of the shambolic search for Saddam's WMD

Mr Blair's last hope of confirming the existence of Iraq's illegal weapons lies in a Qatar warehouse. Raymond Whitaker investigates
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A warehouse on an American military base in the Gulf state of Qatar appears to be Tony Blair's last hope of confirming his insistent claims that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction.

The building contains millions of documents collected by the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), the Anglo-American team of WMD hunters sent in after the war. But the head of the ISG, David Kay, quit earlier this month, saying there was nothing to be found, and analysts say the organisation is doing little more than go through the motions, both on the ground in Iraq and at its "analytical centre" at Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar.

Some of the analysts said they suspected that the ISG is being discouraged from producing a final report that could embarrass the Bush administration ahead of the presidential election in November. Mr Blair, whose spokesman said on Friday that the group should be allowed to complete its work, would probably prefer such a report to be delayed until after a general election in the middle of 2005.

Shortly before his departure, Mr Kay said the focus of the ISG's activities had shifted from "exploratory" work in Iraq to interviewing scientists and analysing documents. But senior officials in the US administration have been stressing the size of both tasks. One told the New York Times that the documents, if piled up, would rise 10 miles high. Another said it would be premature to make any definitive judgment until "millions and millions of pages" of documents had been translated from Arabic. Given that the ISG is short of translators, this would take years.

"Translation is always the main bottleneck, but you don't need to translate all the documents," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, who has worked with UN nuclear inspectors in Iraq. "You can process a large volume of material in a short time if you get Arabic-speakers to scan it for key words, pull out anything that might be of interest and prepare a synopsis for an analyst. He might then ask you to translate what he thinks could be important. It is laborious, but it needn't take years. It could take months."

The ISG is described as numbering 1,400 British and American experts, but Dr Glen Rangwala of Cambridge University pointed out that that included a large number of security personnel and Iraqi support staff. "Even at full strength there were never more than 1,000 people in the region, including 400 in Qatar," he said. "The figure is considerably lower now."

David Isenberg of the British American Security Information Council in Washington estimated that no more than 100 ISG staff were experts in chemical and biological weapons, few of whom had previously set foot in Iraq. "They deliberately didn't hire many people who had been there before with the UN, because they didn't rate the UN inspectors," he said.

The majority of the outside experts, said Dr Rangwala, were military strategists and political analysts, many of whom were later switched to counter-insurgency duties, to Mr Kay's anger. "The ISG is just leaving low-level staff in Iraq to mop up," he added.

US officials seeking to prolong the ISG's work have also stressed the importance of interviewing Iraqi scientists. One said recently that until all the Iraqis involved in WMD programmes were questioned, the "jury is still out" on the accuracy of US intelligence.

"We need to talk to the Iraqis, but this time we must believe them," said Mr Albright. "The way Kay and his people treated them immediately after the war completely alienated them. Some of the scientists were producing documents they had been hiding, only to be asked: 'Where are the nukes? Where are the chemical stocks?' They were treated like liars, and given no incentive to tell the truth.

"The ISG was condemned by its own preconceptions. They were certain there were weapons to be found, and insisted on re-inspecting every site covered by the UN inspectors."

In Mr Albright's view, the time lost since the war might not be made up, because Iraqis who potentially possessed knowledge about WMD would become more reluctant to talk to foreigners as a handover to Iraqi sovereignty approached. The ISG has already said it does not expect to be able to operate in Iraq once the US-led occupation ends.

The new head of the ISG is Charles Duelfer, who is seen as more sceptical about WMD than Mr Kay was when he began his mission. Although the outgoing chief said last week that the ISG had completed 85 per cent of its work without finding the evidence needed by Mr Blair and others, those seeking to spin out the team's work might use the changeover as an excuse.

"My impression is that the ISG is going to splutter along, dying the death of a thousand small cuts," Mr Isenberg said. "As long as it exists, the US and Britain can say it must be allowed to complete its work, and that could last interminably," he added.