Blix confirms inspection teams found no WMD and calls for further UN involvement

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The chief United Nations weapons inspector has confirmed that his team found "no evidence" of programmes involving weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before they were forced to withdraw from the country to make way for military action.

Hans Blix, who will retire as head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (Unmovic), at the end of this month, said in his final report to the Security Council that his experts had left with unanswered questions, notably about stockpiles of anthrax and VX gas. He also pleaded again for the agency to be left intact and active.

Washington is continuing to block requests from other council members that UN inspectors be allowed back into Iraq to ascertain whether there were any weapons of mass destruction there, as asserted by Britain and the US before the war.

"It would be inadvisable to undertake any drastic overall reduction in the present cadre of staff that is fully acquainted with the database and vast archives," Mr Blix said. His experts, he said, have a "broad knowledge of programmes, sites and relevant persons in Iraq, and about the logistics of inspection operations".

So far, inspectors deployed by the US and Britain have failed to find a single banned weapon in Iraq, stirring intense controversy over whether the war was justified. President George Bush has said, however, that two lorries that appear to have been mobile biological laboratories may be proof enough.

Mr Blix conceded that Iraq had failed to disclose the existence of these vehicles to his teams. "None of the types of mobile laboratories described in the media in April-May 2003 as found in Iraq matched the description of mobile facilities provided by Iraq," he said.

But on the question of whether Iraq was guilty of concealing weapons, he wrote that his teams "did not find evidence of the continuation or resumption of programs of weapons of mass destruction or significant quantities of proscribed items".

Under pressure from other council members, including Britain, the US agreed last month to return to the question of whether UN inspectors may return to Iraq in the future. No date has been set for such a debate, however.

But Mr Blix said Unmovic could be ready to return to work in Iraq within two weeks if asked to do so. He still has 30 staff members in New York and inspectors on call around the world.

On the question of anthrax and VX gas, Mr Blix wrote that his team had not been satisfied by data provided by Iraq, which was trying to demonstrate that it had previously destroyed all of its stockpiles. He wrote that the information from Baghdad "does not resolve the question regarding the total quantity of anthrax produced and destroyed by Iraq".