Soldiers in Iraq 'did not have WMD protection'

British forces went into battle in the Iraq war without protective equipment against weapons of mass destruction -- the very "threat" used by Tony Blair to justify joining the American-led invasion.

Not one single tank or armoured vehicle was fitted with the required filter to guard against chemical and biological attacks. And the entire stock of vapour detection kits, needed after a suspected chemical attack, was found to be unusable.

An official audit found that many soldiers were issued with NBC (nuclear, chemical and biological) suits of the wrong size, making them useless, as well as ill-fitting respirators.

Supplies sent to the war zone often got lost, according to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) published today.

One frontline unit was sent back 3,400 miles to Bicester in Oxfordshire to try to find its WMD equipment, which it failed to do. By the time the fighting started, there was not even enough body armour for conventional warfare, spare parts for helicopters or medical supplies. Thousands of pairs of boots were missing, and 50,000 sets of desert jackets and suits had not reached the troops.

In another example of the apparent chaos surrounding supplies, the NAO discovered that 200,000 sets of body armour issued since the Kosovo war in 1999 had simply "disappeared".

Engines and parts for armoured vehicles had been dispatched by sea, and military commanders faced the prospect of them not arriving in time for the beginning of hostilities. A duplicate consignment had to be sent by air, at an extra cost of tens of thousands of pounds.

The Ministry of Defence also had to buy back large numbers of all-terrain military vehicles, which it had sold to private concerns, at "significantly" higher prices. The reason for the initial sale, the NAO was told, was to save money on maintenance.

The Army's main battle tanks, the Challenger 2, were being fitted with extra armour 48 hours before they spearheaded the invasion. Tank crews had no chance to train with the new armour, which changed the handling of their vehicles. Despite the shortcomings, the NAO concluded that the British mission was a success at many levels. And the report praised the swiftness with which British troops switched from fighting to peace-keeping roles in Iraq.

The Challenger 2 battle tank, which had previously broken down in the desert because of the "wrong kind of sand", performed well, as did the SA80A2 assault rifle, which had undergone 85 modifications. The report said: "While the logistics effort was successful overall, the means of tracking supplies in theatre was largely ineffective, manpower intensive and was swamped by the sheer volume of supplies. The whereabouts of key equipment and supplies was unknown and, therefore, arrangements could not be made to get them to people who needed them. This led to shortages, loss of confidence in the supply chain and inefficiency as personnel searched for items they had ordered."