The Government's case for war against Saddam Hussein was undermined further yesterday when the former United Nations chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, said that Iraq had probably destroyed its most deadly weapons of mass destruction more than a decade ago.
Mr Blix, who retired in June, told the Australian state broadcaster ABC: "I'm certainly more and more to the conclusion that Iraq has, as they maintained, destroyed all, almost, of what they had in the summer of 1991."
The suggestion comes at a bad time for the Government, as the Hutton inquiry into the apparent suicide of the weapons expert David Kelly nears its conclusion.
Mr Blix, speaking from his home in Sweden, said that he thought it unlikely that non-UN experts deployed by the coalition forces to search for weapons of mass destruction would find anything beyond "some documents of interest". He added: "The more time that has passed, the more I think it's unlikely that anything will be found."
His comments were made as Tony Blair defended his decision to join US-led military action in Iraq and denied ignoring intelligence warnings that the war would increase the risk of terrorism in Britain.
Accused by Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, of withholding important information that could have strengthened public opposition to the war, Mr Blair replied: "In my view, it would be completely and totally irresponsible if we were to say the danger of those weapons falling into the hands of terrorists meant we should allow Saddam Hussein to continue developing them.
"That would have been a completely foolish state of affairs to have brought about."
They clashed over last week's revelation by the Intelligence and Security Committee that intelligence experts warned that military action against Saddam would be counter-productive. Mr Blix's remarks are in contrast to the claims made by London and Washington in the run-up to the war that Saddam was harbouring a large cache of deadly weapons, which could be deployed easily and quickly.
If Mr Blix is proved correct, questions will be raised over those claims and about the quality of Western intelligence that was available to the British and American governments. The assertion in the Government's September dossier that Iraq was capable of deploying such weapons in 45 minutes looks especially misjudged.
Washington has sent about 1,400 scientists and military experts, the Iraq Survey Group, to searchfor the weapons. But so far nothing appears to have been found and there is mounting speculation that the delivery of a final report to George Bush on what has - or has not - been discovered may be postponed indefinitely.
When asked why Iraq failed to provide evidence that it had destroyed its weapons in the run-up to the war, Mr Blix suggested that Saddam's regime chose to keep up appearances to deter attack. Such a tactic implies that Iraqi officials were instructed to obfuscate on the issue and impede UN inspections.
He said: "Iraq might have tried to fool them surreptitiously in believing that there was something. You see, if they didn't have anything after 1991, there must be some explanation why they behaved as they did. They certainly gave the impression that they were denying access and so forth.
"I mean, you can put up a sign on your door, 'Beware of the Dog', without having a dog." He also indicated that he thought that the US-led coalition started to backtrack on the issue when it became apparent that nothing was being uncovered in Iraq. He said: "In the beginning they talked about weapons concretely, and later on they talked about weapons programmes. Maybe they'll find some documents of interest." Another weapons expert and former UN inspector, David Albright, said last night that the Iraq Survey Group had apparently failed to find anything significant. They are "not finding the kinds of things the administration expected to find, large quantities of biological and chemical weapons or evidence that they were destroyed prior to the war", he said. Demetrius Perricos, acting head of the UN inspections body Unmovic, said he was unsure that weapons would be found in Iraq. "It's becoming more and more difficult to believe stocks [of WMD] were there," Mr Perricos said. He added that it was unlikely that Saddam could have quickly destroyed the weapons before the war.Reuse content