The lndependent on Sunday
December 28, 2003
By Raymond Whitaker
Claims by Tony Blair and George Bush that the threat of weapons of mass destruction justified the war in Iraq were looking increasingly threadbare last night.
The Prime Minister's allegation that British and American weapons hunters had unearthed "massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories" in Iraq was dismissed by Paul Bremer, America's most senior official in Baghdad. And as he left for Libya yesterday at the head of a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), its director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, said the country did not appear to have been close to building a nuclear weapon, as London and Washington claimed.
The supposed danger from Saddam Hussein's WMD was central to the Government's case for war in Iraq, but despite months of work, the Iraq Survey Group, headed by David Kay, has all but given up hope of finding them. Mr Blair has remained undaunted, insisting that the evidence would eventually turn up, and told British troops in his Christmas message that the information on laboratories showed Saddam had attempted to "conceal weapons".
But when the claim was put to Mr Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, he said it was not true. Unaware that it had been made by Mr Blair, the American proconsul said it sounded like a "red herring" put about by someone opposed to military action to undermine the coalition.
"I don't know where those words come from, but that is not what David Kay has said," Mr Bremer told ITV1's Jonathan Dimbleby program. "I have read his report, so I don't know who said that ... It sounds like someone who doesn't agree with the policy sets up a red herring, then knocks it down."
Mr Bremer changed tack when told the statement was by America's staunchest ally. "There is actually a lot of evidence that had been made public," he said, adding that the group had found "clear evidence of biological and chemical programs ongoing ... and clear evidence of violation of UN Security Council resolutions relating to rockets".
Mr Bremer rejected the conclusion by the former chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, that there were no WMD left for Saddam to give up, calling Dr Blix "out of touch". War was justified "historically" regardless of the issue of WMD, he said, pointing to the mass graves of victims of the former regime.
Another fallback has been Libya's surprise announcement, just before Christmas, that it was giving up its efforts to build weapons of mass destruction, and would dismantle its facilities under international supervision. Britain and the US argued Colonel Gaddafi had been swayed by the war in Iraq, although experts said the deal was the culmination of years of efforts by the Libyan leader to restore relations with the West.
According to US officials, Libya's nuclear program was "much further advanced" than previously thought, while a British official said that, while Libya had not acquired a nuclear bomb, "it was quite close to getting one". But as he left for Tripoli yesterday, Mr ElBaradei said there were no signs Libya had enriched uranium - a step that, were it taken, could be the first move towards a bomb.
A "conversion facility", normally also used to upgrade uranium to weapons level, "has not been put together - it's still in the boxes", he said, and a small enrichment facility was dismantled some time ago.
"From the look of it, they were not close to a weapon, but we need to go and see it and discuss the details with them," Mr ElBaradei said. "The important thing for me is to get a comprehensive understanding of the program - the origin, its history, its extent - and then agree with the Libyan authorities on a plan of action to eliminate whatever needs to be eliminated."
The IAEA, the UN's anti-nuclear proliferation watchdog, was sidelined during the secret talks that led to Libya's announcement that it had - and planned to scrap - WMD. Diplomatic sources said the agency now had access to US and British intelligence, but Mr ElBaradei acknowledged that his team was going in knowing relatively little of what to expect.
The IAEA chief has played his part in demolishing previous WMD claims. Although Britain still insists there is information that Iraq tried to buy uranium for its alleged nuclear program from the west African state of Niger, for most the allegation lost all credibility after Mr ElBaradei revealed it was based on forged documents.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd