US 'exaggerated Iraqi WMD threat'

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The Independent US

A leading Washington think-tank yesterday criticised the Bush administration for "systematically misrepresenting" the danger posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and demanded that the United Nations be enlisted to help with the search.

The report, by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is another blow for the White House, which is yet to find evidence of an Iraqi WMD programme.

Washington has alreadywithdrawn from Iraq a 400-member military team specialising in the disposal of WMD and David Kay, the former UN weapons inspector who heads the Iraq Survey Group, is reported to be thinking of stepping down. The Washington Postsuggested this week that Iraq destroyed its biological weapons shortly after the first Gulf War in 1991 and that subsequent "programmes" only existed on paper.

The Carnegie Endowment report said Iraq posed little threat compared with Pakistan, North Korea and the "poorly guarded stockpiles in Russia and other former Soviet States". The report criticised the language used by senior Bush aides before the war as well as the national intelligence estimate (NIE) of October 2002 which contributed to the US decision to go to war. It also described as "questionable" and "unexamined" the theory that Iraq would make WMD available to terrorists. The declassified version of the Iraq NIE - a distillation of US intelligence - contained 40 caveats that were "usually dropped by officials" in their public statements, the report said.

The report, based on interviews with inspectors, specialists and US officials, took six months to compile. It concluded that there was "no evidence of any Iraqi nuclear programme". Before the war, Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, said Iraq had "reconstituted" its nuclear weapons. The report described Washington's decision to plan a pre-emptive war based on the worst-case scenario as "valid", but it added that "acting on worst-case assumptions is an entirely different matter".

Senior US administration officials say the hunt for weapons is not over. Stuart Cohen, who led the NIE report team, said: "It is too early to close the books on this case. Theories abound about what happened."

Carnegie Endowment says it is unlikely that US surveillance would have failed to pick up the movement of WMD if, as some claim, the weapons were moved out of Iraq before the war.