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The final judgement

Now we finally know what we had long suspected. When US and British forces invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein had no chemical weapons; he had no biological weapons; he had no nuclear weapons. In fact, he had no banned weapons at all. That is the considered judgement of the Iraq Survey Group, set up by President Bush to prove his case for removing the Iraqi dictator, and released in Washington last night.

The ISG report proves precisely the opposite. The much-maligned international regime of weapons containment had functioned exactly as it was supposed to. After his failed effort to annex Kuwait, Saddam Hussein was progressively disarmed.

Establishing this truth has required half a dozen top-level inquiries on either side of the Atlantic, the spending of millions of dollars and pounds, the dispatch of hundreds of UN weapons inspectors over the years, and - since the removal of Saddam Hussein - the work of 1,200 inspectors who scoured the country under the auspices of the US-directed Iraq Survey Group.

Oh yes, and it took a war, a war in which thousands of Iraqis, more than 1,000 Americans and more than 100 British and soldiers of other nationalities have died. Iraq is a devastated country that risks sliding into anarchy. And what has it all been for?

After the war officially ended, President Bush and his chief ally, Tony Blair, kept telling us to wait patiently for the ISG to report. In that time, they have changed their story many times over, editing the words, trimming the sense for the possibility that the threat might not have been as great as they had thought.

Perhaps there were no weapons, Mr Bush said, but he would have gone to war anyway. Even if there were no actual stockpiles, Mr Blair and his ministers said, there were "weapons programmes". Last week, the programmes themselves evaporated. Mr Blair told us (almost) straight the intelligence was wrong. "I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong," he said, without actually doing so, "but I can't sincerely, at least, apologise for removing Saddam."

Mr Bush's case for war is also unravelling. His Defence Secretary let slip this week that there was no "hard evidence" for a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida. The second US viceroy of Iraq, Paul Bremer, said US troop numbers had been grossly inadequate for the job they had to do. Troop numbers had been an ideological decision.

Now that the ISG has reported, it is clear beyond doubt that Iraq's deadly weapons capacity boiled down to a glint, if that, in Saddam Hussein's eye. In one of the more shameless examples of pre-emptive "spinning", even from this Government so addicted to "spin", the Foreign Secretary told us yesterday that, "the report highlights the nature of the threat from Saddam in terms of his intentions and capabilities in even starker terms than we have seen before". Try parsing that. Try translating it into plain English.

The ISG report tells us in no uncertain terms that the invasion of Iraq was grounded in little more substantial than figments of a fevered, post-11 September, imagination. The international "consensus" that Saddam Hussein constituted a global threat was incorrect. So much for UN Resolution 1441 that gave the US and Britain their spurious excuse for war.

There was a failure of intelligence, on either side of the Atlantic, of historic proportions, the reasons for which need to be identified as a matter of urgency. More gravely, though, there was a historic failure of judgement on the part of a small group of national leaders. Trust us, they told us. They were credulous, they failed to consult broadly enough, they failed to exercise due responsibility - and they were wrong.

Spanish voters have already given their verdict on the judgement of their former prime minister. Australians have their chance this weekend. Americans should use their vote in less than four weeks' time to express their disgust with a President who rushed their country into so unnecessary and damaging a war. We British will probably have to wait at least until next year.

In the meantime, the very least that Mr Blair should offer is a full apology. An apology for asking us to trust him so unconditionally. An apology for the lives of the British servicemen and the Iraqis that have been so needlessly lost. An apology for his judgement that turned out to be so flawed on a matter so crucial as peace and war. The final verdict will then rest, as it should, with the voters.