US inspectors fail to uncover evidence of Saddam's arsenal

Prime Minister dealt fresh blow as ISG fails to find weapons to support case for war

Tony Blair's already tattered case for going to war was further weakened last night amid claims that inspectors appointed by the US have found no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq.

A leak of a draft interim report by the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), which has been searching for WMD since the war, says no weapons have been found.

The report, due to be published next month, concludes that it is also highly unlikely WMD were shipped out of Iraq to Syria. But it is believed to have evidence of "deception" by Saddam Hussein over his plans to develop WMD programmes.

The failure to find any weapons would be a severe setback for President George Bush and Mr Blair. British ministers are bracing themselves for new allegations that the Prime Minister took the country to war on a false pretext. Mr Blair has begun to play down the prospect that the group will find WMD, predicting it would discover "evidence of programmes".

According to the BBC, the group's interim report will say its inspectors have not even unearthed "minute amounts of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons material". They have also failed to uncover any laboratories involved in deploying WMD or delivery systems for the weapons.

Andrew Neil, presenter of BBC's The Daily Politics show, said yesterday that a contact in Washington told him the document will say Saddam Hussein mounted a programme to deceive and hinder the work of UN weapons inspectors. It would also publish computer programs, files, pictures and paperwork which it says show that Iraq was attempting to develop a WMD programme.

A defence source told The Independent: "From what we know, the ISG has not produced a smoking gun." The interim report was originally due to be published two weeks ago, but was delayed amid claims that the team had failed to find incriminating evidence.

A US official in New York insisted yesterday that the head of the ISG, David Kay, a special adviser to the CIA, would provide documentary evidence of WMD having been in Iraq. "It generally will be about chemical and biological weapons and I think he's going to find evidence, documentary evidence, statements by Iraqi scientists and technicians, that they had chemical and biological weapons production programmes," he said. But he added: "Whether they will find or disclose anything on the weapons themselves, I doubt."

Mr Bush hinted at the possibility of finding at least some documentary evidence of the weapons during his speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday. "We are now interviewing Iraqi citizens and analysing records of the old regime, to reveal the full extent of its weapons programmes and long campaign of deception," he declared.

Opposition parties in Britain said the leaked report showed the need for an independent judicial inquiry into the Government's case for war.

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