WAR IN IRAQ: US engineers draw another blank over suspected weapons site




By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent, in London

Financial Times, 12 April 2003

American forces seeking evidence that Iraq was concealing a weapons of mass destruction programme yesterday acknowledged for the fourth time in a week that a suspect site had failed to provide proof of secret weapons production.

Since the outbreak of war, US and UK forces have occupied territory in which up to 30 of a total 40 alleged nuclear, chemical or biological weapons sites identified in UK and US intelligence reports are located.

US Marine engineers visiting the Tuwaitha nuclear research centre south of Baghdad on Thursday said they had found “many, many” drums that they said contained low-grade uranium.

What the Marines appeared not to know was that the site was visited by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 12 times between November and March. Iraq was permitted to retain uranium at the site under UN resolutions.

On entering the site, the troops were said yesterday by the IAEA to have broken door and container seals that were intended to prevent the nuclear material being smuggled out.

The revision of statements suggesting that new evidence had been found – which would have bolstered the case for war – follows similar reversals in the past few days.

A white powder found at a site near Najaf and first thought to be chemical agent was later deemed to have been explosives, while 14 barrels of liquid initially said to be sarin and tabun nerve agents found at Hindiyah are now thought to be pesticide. A further claim that a cache of rockets mounted on a multiple launcher has yet to be verified as being armed with chemical warheads.

Admiral Sir Alan West, head of the UK Royal Navy and a former chief of UK defence intelligence, said yesterday he was “absolutely convinced” that Iraq had WMD though in less abundance than widely suggested.

“There are some people who have talked in terms of thousands of tonnes of chemicals and hundreds and hundreds of missiles of extended range and I would say that is way beyond the top end,” he said.

Ari Fleischer, White House spokesman, said this week: “We have high confidence that they have weapons of mass destruction – that is what this war was about and is about – and we have high confidence [they] will be found.”

However, the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime without its firing a single one of the WMD it allegedly possessed has raised the question of why it would have had them if it was not prepared to use them.

Equally mystifying has been the process of amassing evidence to justify the war. This has been marked by the exposure of glaring factual errors in intelligence reports and evidence of government pressure being exerted on intelligence services to find suitable proof.

Evidence presented by Tony Blair, prime minister, detailed alleged Iraqi efforts to buy uranium from Niger.

Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA director-general, told the UN Security Council on March 7 that the documents substantiating the claim were fake and that “these specific allegations are unfounded”.

Evidence presented by US officials that suggested Iraq had sought to buy aluminium tubes for use in centrifuges for the uranium enrichment process, has also been dismissed.

A weapons expert said: “All the evidence points to their being used for rockets not centrifuges.”

Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general, said this week that UN weapons inspectors should return to Iraq quickly.

The US is assembling a team of its own inspectors, though weapons experts doubt that their finds will be regarded with the credibility of any made by a UN team.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.