Inquiry told Iraq could not 'use' chemical weapons
Sir William Ehrman speaking at the inquiry
The UK received intelligence days before invading Iraq that Saddam Hussein may not have been able to use chemical weapons, an adviser has said.
Foreign Office official Sir William Ehrman told the war inquiry that a report suggested that such weapons may have been "disassembled".
A separate report suggested Iraq might also "lack" warheads capable of spreading chemical agents, he added.
But Sir William defended the invasion, saying Iraq had flouted UN resolutions.
Sir William, the Foreign Office's director general for defence and intelligence between 2002 and 2004, insisted that the role of intelligence in the decision to go to war was "limited".
He also said it was a "surprise" no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were ever found in Iraq.
"It was not what we had expected," he added.
The reasons for going to war in Iraq - including the now discredited claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which could be used within 45 minutes of an order being given - remain a long-standing source of controversy.
In its second day of public hearings, the inquiry looked into Iraq's weapons capability and its influence on the decision to go to war.
During this, Sir William revealed that on 10 March "we did...get a report that chemical weapons might have remained disassembled and Saddam hadn't yet ordered their assembly."
WITNESSES ON WEDNESDAY
William Ehrman: Foreign Office's director of international security (2000/02) and director general of defence and intelligence (2002-2004)
Tim Dowse: Foreign Office's head of counter-proliferation (2001-2003)
He added: "There was also a suggestion that Iraq might lack warheads capable of effective dispersal of agents."
But Sir William added there was "contradictory intelligence".
"I don't think it invalidated the point about what weapons he had. It was more about their use. Even if they were disassembled the (chemical or biological) agents still existed."
The BBC's world affairs correspondent Peter Biles said a lot of the intelligence which the government received in the run-up to the war was confused and, as previous inquiries have shown, inaccurate.
But the Lib Dems said it was a "dramatic revelation" and seemed to contradict Tony Blair's statement in Parliament that Iraq posed a "clear and present danger" to international security.
"This is really damning for the former prime minister," said the party's foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey.
"To go to war when you are not absolutely certain about your case raises serious questions about whether international law was broken."
Asked to explain the absence of WMD and why the UK government had got this wrong, Sir William noted a "great deal" of the intelligence about Iraq's chemical and biological weapons production provided before the war had been withdrawn afterwards as false.
He also said the situation had been complicated by Saddam Hussein not wanting to reveal the true state of his weapons arsenal for fear of showing himself "quite so weak" to Iran.
Former Foreign Office civil servant Tim Dowse: 45 minutes report "not significant"
Addressing the overall threat posed by Iraq in 2001, the Foreign Office said it was "not top of its list" of countries causing concern because of their stated desire to develop weapons of mass destruction, ranking below Iran, North Korea and Libya.
With sanctions in place against Iraq, the Foreign Office believed Saddam Hussein could not build a nuclear weapon and, even if sanctions were removed, it was estimated it would take him five years to do so.
Tim Dowse - Foreign Office Director of Counter-Proliferation between 2001 and 2003 - said most evidence suggested Iraq's chemical and biological programme had largely been "destroyed" in 1991.
Intelligence in late 2002 suggested Iraq was rebuilding its capability, he said, although its actual position had been unclear since weapons inspectors were expelled in 1998.
He was black and he had to prove himself white. He did not do so
But he said the threat posed by Iraq was viewed as "unique" from other "deliberate proliferators" because it had shown itself willing to use weapons of mass destruction on its own people and its neighbours and was flouting a range of UN disarmament resolutions.
Turning to the months leading up to the war, Sir William said Saddam Hussein failed to comply with "two key tests" in UN Security Resolution 1441, requiring him to provide a "full declaration" of Iraq's weapons capacity and to fully co-operate with UN weapons inspectors.
"He [Saddam Hussein] was black and he had to prove himself white. He did not do so."
Weapons inspectors entered 10 out of 19 Iraqi sites under suspicion of concealing WMD in the weeks before the invasion, Sir William said.
He told the inquiry they uncovered illegal materials, documents and weapons components at four of these sites although none proving the existence of an active WMD programme.
Sir William said the process showed a pattern of non-compliance, describing it as a "pretty good strike rate" on the basis of the intelligence available at the time.
November-December: Former top civil servants, spy chiefs, diplomats and military commanders to give evidence
January-February 2010: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and other politicians expected to appear before the panel
March 2010: Inquiry expected to adjourn ahead of the general election campaign
July-August 2010: Inquiry expected to resume
Report set to be published in late 2010 or early 2011
Asked why ministers were not warned that active WMD programmes may not be found in Iraq because they did not exist, Mr Dowse said:
"We could have briefed ministers 'perhaps we are wrong' but we did not actually think that we were wrong. The evidence seemed, to us, to be confirming us in our view."
Giving inspectors more time to do their work - as called for by France and Russia - may have helped "diplomatically and politically", he said.
But he said this would not have made any difference to the ultimate outcome without full Iraqi co-operation, which was not forthcoming.
The inquiry also learnt that the UK investigated and rejected suggestions of links between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda.
Following the 9/11 attacks, the Foreign Office looked at the matter "very carefully", Mr Dowse said, and concluded there was "nothing that looked like a relationship between the Iraqis and al-Qaeda".
"After 9/11 we concluded that Iraq had stepped further back and they did not want to be associated with al-Qaeda," he said. "They were not natural allies."
The inquiry, looking at the whole period from 2001 to 2009, was set up by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who also chose the panel.
On Thursday it will interview Sir Christopher Meyer, the former UK ambassador to Washington, about transatlantic relations in the lead-up to the war.
Mr Brown and predecessor Tony Blair are expected to be among future witnesses, with the final report due early in 2011.
The prime minister has rejected claims by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg that government departments could veto parts of the final report.
Previously, the Butler inquiry looked at intelligence failures before the war, while the Hutton inquiry examined the circumstances leading to the death of former government adviser David Kelly.
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