Three giant cargo ships are being tracked by US and British intelligence on suspicion that they might be carrying Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Each with a deadweight of 35,000 to 40,000 tonnes, the ships have been sailing around the world's oceans for the past three months while maintaining radio silence in clear violation of international maritime law, say authoritative shipping industry sources.
The vessels left port in late November, just a few days after UN weapons inspectors led by Hans Blix began their search for the alleged Iraqi arsenal on their return to the country.
Uncovering such a deadly cargo on board would give George Bush and Tony Blair the much sought-after "smoking gun" needed to justify an attack on Saddam Hussein's regime, in the face of massive public opposition to war.
The ships were chartered by a shipping agent based in Egypt and are flying under the flags of three different countries. The continued radio silence since they left port, in addition to the captains' failure to provide information on their cargoes or their destinations, is a clear breach of international maritime laws.
The vessels are thought to have spent much of their time in the deep waters of the Indian Ocean, berthing at sea when they need to collect supplies of fuel and food. They have berthed in a handful of Arab countries, including Yemen.
American and British military forces are believed to be reluctant to stop and search the vessels for fear that any intervention might result in them being scuttled. If they were carrying chemical and biological weapons, or fissile nuclear material, and they were to be sunk at sea, the environmental damage could be catastrophic.
Washington and London might also want to orchestrate any raids so that they can present the ships as "evidence" that President Saddam is engaged in "material breach" of UN resolutions. This could provide the trigger for military strikes. While security sources in London last night were unable to provide information on any surveillance operation, the movement of the three ships is the source of growing concern among maritime and intelligence experts.
A shipping industry source told The Independent: "If Iraq does have weapons of mass destruction, then a very large part of its capability could be afloat on the high seas right now. These ships have maintained radio silence for long periods and, for a considerable time, they have been steaming around in ever-decreasing circles."
The ships are thought to have set sail from a country other than Iraq to avoid running the gauntlet of Western naval vessels patrolling the Gulf. Defence experts believe that, if they are carrying weapons of mass destruction, these could have been smuggled out through Syria or Jordan.
Despite hundreds of searches by UN inspectors, no evidence has yet been found of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programmes. A succession of "dossiers" presented by Downing Street has been criticised for providing inaccurate information, with the most recent one subject to ridicule because a student's 11-year-old doctoral thesis was being passed off as current intelligence. There was a further setback for Washington and London when the accuracy of satellite photographs shown to the United Nations by Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, purporting to show Iraqi officials moving incriminating evidence from a suspected site, was questioned by Hans Blix.
Mr Blix said: "The reported movement of munitions at the site could just as easily have been a routine activity as a movement of proscribed munitions in anticipation of an imminent inspection."
Attempts to link the Iraqi regime to al-Qa'ida and other Islamist groups have also been met with scepticism. The UN says, though, that Iraq has failed to account for 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents from the war against Iran; to reveal the whereabouts of 6,500 missing chemical rockets; to produce evidence it has destroyed 8,500 litres of anthrax; and to account for 380 rocket engines smuggled into Iraq with chemicals used for missile propellants and control systems.
Intelligence reports, and some Iraqi defectors, have maintained that incriminating material and documents relating to weapons of mass destruction have been buried in remote parts of the country and have also been hidden in a variety of locations including homes of officials and scientists, as well as mosques. There have also been claims that chemical and biological products have been smuggled into Syria.
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