Saddam 'destroyed weapons in 1990s'

A compelling explanation for why substantive evidence of weapons of mass destruction has not yet been discovered in Iraq has been given by intelligence experts who believe that Iraq dismantled its weapons in the mid-1990s.

Professor Richard Shultz, one of the United States' top intelligence experts, contends that at some point before 2000 the Iraqis changed their strategy. "I think US intelligence misunderstood the WMD issue. But then so did everyone else," he said.

Prof Shultz, of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston, says that American intelligence was convinced that Saddam Hussein had hidden actual weaponised WMD.

"It is almost certain that Saddam ordered the weapons dismantled or destroyed some time in the 1990s. Sanctions had seriously impeded the Iraqi efforts to obtain materials and equipment for their WMD programmes.

"The Iraqi strategy was to get sanctions lifted and they mounted a deception ... But then [Osama] bin Laden got in the way. After September 11 the Bush administration turned its attention firmly to Iraq," says Prof Shultz, who believes that the World Trade Centre attacks disrupted the Iraqi strategy.

Dr Magnus Ranstorp of St Andrews University says Prof Shultz's explanation is "very valid": "I think they will eventually find evidence of a WMD programme but I think we have already had indications that it was dispersed."

Evidence given in the US this week suggests that US intelligence analysts lacked new, hard information about Saddam's weapons after United Nations inspectors left Iraq in 1998. The CIA had to rely on data from the early and mid-1990s, from which it concluded in months leading up to the war that those programmes continued into 2003. These are the leaked preliminary findings of a CIA internal review panel.

The man in charge of the review, Richard J Kerr, said: "It would be very hard to conclude those programmes were not continuing, based on the reports being gathered in recent years about Iraqi ... activities before the war."

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