A year after his landmark speech to the United Nations making the case for war, Colin Powell has confessed that he might not have recommended the invasion of Iraq had he known that its alleged stocks of banned weapons were in fact non-existent.
"I don't know," was the bald reply of the Secretary of State when asked whether he would have argued for war under these circumstances.
It was the belief that a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons made Saddam Hussein "a real and present" danger, General Powell said. "The absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus; it changes the answer you get."
Even though he insisted that the invasion was justified, despite all that has come to light since, his remarks in an interview yesterday with the Washington Post are the closest yet to an admission of possible error from a senior member of the Bush administration.
President George Bush has grudgingly given the go-ahead for an independent commission to investigate the WMD intelligence fiasco. But its precise remit is a matter of debate, as is the timing.
In the meantime, Vice- President Dick Cheney, the backstage architect of the war, still professes that weapons may be found, while two other prominent hawks, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, have fallen silent.
General Powell's presentation to the UN on 5 February 2003, complete with audio intercepts and spy satellite imagery, most eloquently and plausibly made the US case for war - and his reputation as the leading moderate in a hardline administration was vital in winning over many waverers.
But after last week's devastating Congressional testimony from David Kay, the former US chief weapons inspector, the bulk of General Powell's assertions - honed by long hours of questioning of CIA analysts in the days before his speech - have been shown to be wrong.
Among his most chilling claims, General Powell maintained that a missile brigade was deploying warheads loaded with biological weapons to the battlefield. Mr Kay made clear that nothing of the kind had been discovered, and that Iraqi generals have since told investigators that they had neither chemical nor biological weapons.
Last February, flanked by the CIA director George Tenet, the Secretary of State displayed satellite pictures to the UN Security Council, supposedly proving that banned materials had been moved from purported Iraqi WMD sites. In fact, the transfers were of normal hazardous materials.
There were said to be "first-hand descriptions" of mobile biological weapons factories. According to Mr Kay, the three trailers discovered since the war were probably used for hydrogen production. According to the CIA, the units were ill-suited for any purpose.
As for the estimate advanced by General Powell of up to 500 tons of chemical weapons in Iraqi hands, Mr Kay told Congress that Baghdad's ability to develop and produce such munitions had been "reduced, if not entirely destroyed" by the 1991 Gulf war, subsequent US and British bombing of suspect sites, as well as more than 12 years of UN sanctions and inspections.
In his interview, the Secretary of State advanced what promises to become the Bush administration's standard defence of its behaviour. Analysts were not pressured and their conclusions were not distorted and, he insisted, the US belief that Saddam had banned weapons was shared by Britain, France and other countries.
Every word in the 5 February presentation had been cleared by the US intelligence community, General Powell stressed. Given the evidence available at the time, Mr Bush made a "prudent decision" to go to war. Saddam had the intent and capability to build weapons, and would have done so the moment UN sanctions were lifted.
ALLIES AND OPPONENTS THE INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
John Howard, the Prime Minister, whose government next month will hear the outcome of a parliamentary inquiry into its decision to go to war in Iraq, admitted yesterday that the US and British intelligence on which it based its decision may have been wrong. He said: "In the fullness of time, it might be demonstrated that the advice was inaccurate. We can't be absolutely certain [that the intelligence was wrong]."
Jose Maria Aznar, the outgoing Prime Minister, has left his ruling Popular Party floundering to find justifications for its decision to go to war, just weeks away from a general election. Javier Arenas, the Spanish deputy prime minister, facing accusations from the opposition over "the lies" on which the country invaded Iraq, defended his party's position earlier this week, saying that "all the information the Spanish government had on weapons of mass destruction came from [the] UN report".
Having refused to support the decision to go to war, Russia is calling for a quick answer to the question of whether Iraq had WMD or not. Yuri Fedotov, Russia's chief negotiator on Iraq, said yesterday: "We have an ambiguous situation where the sanctions have been removed from Iraq and the disarmament process has not been completed formally."
When Tony Blair visited Moscow in April, President Vladimir Putin appeared to mock the coalition's failure to find WMD in Iraq. Mr Fedotov, who was due to meet Demetrius Perricos, the acting head of Unmovic, the UN inspectors' body, said yesterday, if no WMD was found, "Unmovic should report to the Security Council on that", so its work could be halted.
The French were the most vocal opponents to the war, maintaining that Iraq posed no imminent threat and arguing for the UN inspectors to be given more time to search the country for WMD. The threat of a French veto in the UN meant the war went ahead without international backing.
But having maintained diplomatic representatives in Iraq after the 1990-91 Gulf War, the French intelligence services are known to have supported most of the information that went into Britain's September dossier. This includes the claim that Saddam had weapons, a fact pointed out by David Kay, the former head of the Iraq Survey Group, in his testimony to the US Congress last month.
Name-checked by Jack Straw in the Commons yesterday as having "certainly believed that there were WMD", Germany opposed the war in the UN and has refused to send troops to aid in the reconstruction of Iraq.Reuse content