WMD: Now it is Bush's turn to face uncomfortable truths

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The Bush administration was in full retreat yesterday over its claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as the man with the task of uncovering that arsenal sought to shift the blame away from the White House and on to the intelligence community.

David Kay, who until last week headed the US-appointed Iraq Survey Group looking for WMD, repeated his belief that no such weapons existed. Giving evidence before a senate committee, Mr Kay said: "We were almost all wrong - and I certainly include myself here." He added: "We have not discovered any evidence of stockpiles [of weapons]."

Mr Kay said that while the group's 1,400-strong team was still searching for weapons, he believed that efforts so far had been "sufficiently intense" to conclude that no WMD would be found.

But just as the Hutton report did not find fault with the Government, Mr Kay refused to criticise the Bush administration, claiming that while the intelligence cited by the President and his senior staff was flawed there was no political pressure on intelligence analysts to "skew" their findings.

"[I spoke to many intelligence analysts] and not in a single case was the explanation that 'I was pressured to this'. I deeply think that is a wrong explanation," he said.

"We had a number of surprises. It's quite clear we need capabilities that we do not have with regard to intelligence."

George Bush is rapidly backing away from his claims that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD, saying instead that the war was justified because the Iraqi leader posed a "grave and gathering threat to America and to the world". In his recent State of the Union address, he referred to "weapons of mass destruction-related programme activities".

Challenged by reporters on Tuesday to stand by his claim that Saddam possessed WMD, Mr Bush said: "I think it is important we let the Iraq Survey Group do its work so we can find out the facts and compare the facts to what we thought."

There is a sense that the WMD issue could present a problem for Mr Bush as he campaigns for re-election. The comments he made about the threat posed by Saddam will be held up to scrutiny. Senior officials have admitted that the question of flawed intelligence is something the White House will be forced to confront sooner or later.

Of all the senior officials who made claims about WMD, Vice-President Dick Cheney remains the only one who continues to make the case that Iraq was armed. There are rumours that Mr Bush may be considering dropping Mr Cheney as his running mate in the election.

Critics of the Bush administration claimed that intelligence was "cherry picked" and skewed to make the case for war and that caveats about the lack of solid intelligence about Saddam's capabilities were ignored for political reasons. They said putting the blame on the intelligence community amounted to a "whitewash".

Scott Ritter, a former chief UN weapons and an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq, said last night: "I am at a loss to explain what happened in the UK and in the US. I think we were overwhelmed by the theocracy of evil in that we assumed he intended to obtain WMD and then everything that happened was interpreted with that assumption. It's insane."