Search for smoking gun draws a blank
US and Britain's case for war undermined by special forces' failure to find illegal arms at 10 suspected sites
Monday March 31, 2003
Britain and the United States suffered a fresh blow last night when their main justification for war was undermined by reports that special forces have failed to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
As Tony Blair launched a charm offensive to persuade the Arab world to understand his decision to go to war, senior officials in Washington said that intelligence information about weapons of mass destruction at 10 sites had proved to be unfounded.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that tests had proved negative at all "urgent" sites in the western desert. "All the searches have turned up negative," a staff officer told thenewspaper. "The munitions that have been found have all been conventional."
Special operations forces from the US, Britain and Australia are understood to have seized the sites which were believed by US central command to house chemical warheads, Scud missiles and eight-wheeled transporter-erector launchers, known as TELs.
Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, attempted to play down the findings. He told ABC's This Week that banned weapons were not in areas controlled by allied forces.
"We know where they are, they are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north of that," he said.
But the failure to uncover weapons at sites identified by intelligence will be a severe blow to Tony Blair and George Bush, who attacked Iraq on the basis that Saddam Hussein has the weapons.
The prime minister cited Iraq's banned weapons yesterday when attempting to win over the Arab world. Declaring that "history will judge" him to be right, he told several Arab newspapers that failure to take action against President Saddam would allow him to "pass on these weapons to extremist terrorist groups".
His remarks came as US officials admitted that they were facing intense pressure to prove the Anglo-American claims about Iraq's stockpile. John Wolf, the assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation, said that Colin Powell was desperate to find a "smoking gun".
Mr Wolf told the Washington Post: "Very clearly, we need to find this stuff or people are going to be asking questions."
The failure to locate any proscribed weapons at sites highlighted by US intelligence will come as some relief to Hans Blix, the UN chief weapons inspector, who dismissed American intelligence in the run-up to the war.
Mr Blix is now said to be involved in another battle with Washington, which is poaching his staff to set up its own inspectorate in Iraq.
Frustrated by the failure of the UN to find banned weapons, Washington is negotiating contracts with private companies to carry out the inspections. This is likely to dismay the prime minister, who is understood to have urged President Bush in private to allow the UN inspectors to resume work in Iraq.
US officials told the Washington Post that an "international entity" would be allowed to verify the discovery of any banned weapons. But the crucial inspection work would be carried out by the US.
This has infuriated Mr Blix, who is understood to have lost up to five of his staff to the US team. Mr Blix underlined his anger by telling the paper that three of his staff have asked for his advice about the poaching operation, even though he said he had "not heard one word from Washington".
He added: "They are free as individuals. If they want to terminate their contracts anyone can do that ... But they would not be allowed to reveal anything that they have done here."
Critics of the US are also likely to seize on the disclosure that a company with close links to the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, is likely to profit from the destruction of any banned weapons.
A subsidiary of Halliburton, of which Mr Cheney was the chairman until he joined the Bush team, is in the running to destroy them.