Hans Blix: If you had seen what I have seen

Hans Blix Will President Bush apply the lessons from Iraq to Iran, Libya and North Korea?

With their report last week, the inspectors appointed by the Bush administration to search Iraq for weapons of mass destruction have had to acknowledge that the reality on the ground was totally different from the virtual reality that had been spun.

Both Charles Duelfer, head of the Iraq Survey Group, and David Kay, his predecessor, were hawks who favoured the Iraq war. But while they try to give the administration some straws to cling to, they are professionals. After inspecting many sites, examining the voluminous documentation that has become available and interviewing many individuals, including Saddam Hussein and others in detention, they admit that the spin, to which they themselves had gladly contributed, was wrong.

Duelfer seems to contradict some points made by Kay in his interim report, which were seized upon by governments. For example, Kay said his group had discovered dozens of "weapons of mass destruction-related programme activities". He pointed to a vial of botulinum found in a scientist's refrigerator, and said his group had found a number of secret underground labs that would have been suitable for chemical and biological programmes. Duelfer does not see anything significant in these finds.

More important, Duelfer believes that Iraq destroyed its WMD in the summer of 1991, and finds nothing to document any programmes after that time. Far from confirming Tony Blair's reported reading that Saddam "had every intention of reviving his WMD programmes", the report suggests Saddam gave his officials the impression that he was interested in resuming programmes "if sanctions were lifted". This is the new straw to which the governments concerned have begun to cling.

When might the sanctions have been lifted? Duelfer does not tell us, but in support of his view that the war was justified, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he doubted sanctions were "sustainable". He implied that they might lapse some time in the future - after which Saddam could revive his WMD programmes with impunity. Asked whether sanctions were not at least sustainable during some more months of inspection, Duelfer - evidently fearing damage to the administration that appointed him - said he could not answer.

He might have added that even if economic sanctions were lifted or watered down in the future, nothing suggests that the Security Council would relax its ban on Iraq acquiring WMD. Indeed, binding resolutions foresaw a "reinforced system of monitoring and verification" without any fixed end. Even if economic sanctions were to have been lifted, any "breakout" by Saddam would have caused loud alarm bells to ring.

Duelfer's report confirms that the combination of UN sanctions and inspection, plus external pressures - including the "no-fly zones" - had kept Saddam contained. As I wrote in my book Disarming Iraq, the world succeeded in disarming Saddam without knowing it.

Saddam's first political aim, according to the report, was to get rid of the sanctions. That is why, we are told, he eliminated the WMD and WMD programmes, probably in 1991. Duelfer concludes, as I have done, that Saddam deliberately allowed the impression to exist that WMD were still there - to look bigger and more dangerous than he was.

Like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Duelfer's group sees not a trace of revival of a nuclear programme. On the contrary, he says Iraq was further away from a nuclear weapon in 2003 than it was in 1991. It had not used the period between 1999 and 2002, when there were no inspections, for any revival. Thus, while George Bush has been maintaining that Saddam was a "growing threat" he was a diminishing danger to his neighbours and the world.

Bush has been stressing that Saddam hated the US. However, Duelfer says that Saddam's interest in WMD seems to have been driven by concerns about Iran and Israel.

Duelfer underlines the vital importance of having inspectors on the ground - hardly surprising, considering that most of the correct information available to US and British intelligence came from UN and IAEA inspectors, and that most of the things they got wrong were the results of their own work and contacts with Iraqis in exile. Can one hope that this will be remembered in future cases when supervision and verification will be needed, for example, in Iran, Libya and North Korea?

I am not against intelligence. It is indispensable, not least in face of terrorist groups. When it comes to identifying the production or existence of WMD, assistance from intelligence to international inspection authorities can be helpful. Intelligence has sources that the inspectors do not have, but the inspectors have the right to be on the ground and to request information. Moreover, they are independent of governments. In foreign affairs, as in medicine, successful operations require correct diagnoses.

Hans Blix is chairman of the Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction and former head of the UN weapons inspectors