INTERNATIONAL

Report discounts Bush's WMD claims

WASHINGTON, OCT. 7. Saddam Hussein destroyed his weapons of mass destruction soon after the 1991 Gulf War and his capacity to build new ones had been eroding for years by the time of the Iraq invasion, said a comprehensive U.S. report released yesterday.

The report, the conclusion of an intensive 15-month search by 1,200 inspectors from the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), found that Mr. Hussein intended to restart his weapons programmes once sanctions were lifted. But there was no evidence any concrete plans were ever laid down, let alone set in motion.

Diminishing threat

The report, delivered to Congress yesterday, comes at a bad time for the U.S. President, George Bush's re-election bid, as it flatly contradicts his pre-war claims as well as statements he has made on the campaign trail. Even in recent days, the President has insisted that, though Iraq had no WMD at the time of the war, it was a "gathering threat" which had to be confronted. Instead, the ISG found Mr. Hussein represented a diminishing threat.

However, Charles Duelfer, head of the ISG and the report's chief author, said that by the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. — after which the international embargo on Iraq was tightened — it was clear sanctions would not have contained Mr. Hussein for much longer.

Mr. Duelfer told a Senate committee yesterday that Mr. Hussein's regime "had made progress in eroding sanctions, and if had it not been for September 11, things would have taken a very different turn for the regime."

He pointed out the report was comprehensive but "not final" as a team of 900 linguists were still sifting through a mountain of documents. But Mr. Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector, added: "I still do not expect that militarily significant WMD stocks are hidden in Iraq."

'Far more complicated'

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in his first response to the report, claimed that it showed Mr. Hussein was seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction and had retained key scientists to do so. Mr. Blair said in Ethiopia that the report shows that "the situation is far more complicated than many thought. Just as I have had to accept that the evidence now shows that there were not stockpiles of actual weapons ready to deploy, I hope others will have the honesty to accept that the report also shows that sanctions were not working. On the contrary Saddam was doing his best to get round those sanctions."

Iraq could have produced small amounts of biological or chemical agents with a few weeks' notice, a senior U.S. official closely involved in the ISG investigation said. However, after more than a decade spent dismantling programmes in the hope of removing sanctions, it would have taken Iraq one to two years to produce "a military significant amount of nerve agent." As far as making a nuclear bomb was concerned, Mr. Duelfer said, "Iraq was further away in 2003 than he was in 1991. So the nuclear programme was decaying steadily."

Mr. Duelfer's team did find evidence that Mr. Hussein wanted to restart his weapons programmes if the U.N. embargo on his country were lifted. However, none of that evidence was on paper. The primary source was the imprisoned leader himself.

Mr. Duelfer said Mr. Hussein had told his interrogators "he would do whatever it took to offset the Iranian threat, making it clear he was referring to Iran's nuclear capability." He suggested that only he knew what his weapons plans were and that even close aides were uncertain whether Iraq had WMD or not.

Ineffectual sanctions

In the 12 years between the first and second Gulf Wars, an American official who helped compile the report said it was clear that U.N. sanctions had been effective in persuading Mr. Hussein to disarm. "The prime objective was the elimination of sanctions and he weighed all policies with this overarching objective in mind," Mr. Duelfer said.

A separate CIA report, leaked to the U.S. press this week, severely weakened another of the Bush administration's central justifications for the war — the link between Baghdad and Al-Qaeda.

In one chapter, the Duelfer report included evidence of sanctions busting by U.S., French, Russian and Polish companies, and bribes to Russian and French political figures. However, the identities of the U.S. companies allegedly involved were withheld for American legal reasons.