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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 September, 2003, 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
No sign of Iraq's WMD

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC defence correspondent

As the first phase of the Hutton inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of one of the British Government's leading weapons experts ends, in Iraq the hunt for weapons of mass destruction continues.

The job has been entrusted to a specially created organisation called the Iraq Survey Group. It took over this task from the US military in June. It too is a largely US operation - headed by a US general - though it includes some British and Australian staff.

The Group may well conclude that Iraq had an elaborate and secret effort to maintain elements of its weapons programmes - in "suspended animation" if you like
Its 1,300 personnel are made up of many former UN weapons inspectors.

Its focus is intelligence, using documents and interviews with Iraqi scientists to build up a picture of the secret world of Iraq's weapons programmes.

So what has it found?

So far, it seems, not a lot.

Media unfriendly

Its work, too, is shrouded in secrecy. Approaches from the press elicit a blank response.

"The Iraq Survey Group continues to maintain a zero media profile at this time," was all one spokesman would tell me.

But what is certain is that if any major discovery had been made then the Bush administration would have been shouting about it from the rooftops.

US troops examine empty shells during a raid in Tikrit
Weapons or suspended weapons programmes?
All we have to go on are reports from a briefing that the group provided to leading Congressional figures last month.

David Kay - a former senior UN nuclear inspector said his team was making "solid progress" . He was confident about getting results but cautious as to how long it might take.

The Iraq Survey Group is under a good deal of pressure to prove the Bush administration's case that Iraq's weapons posed a significant threat.

The group is expected to provide an interim report on its activities later this month.

So far - at least in terms of what has come into the public domain - there is little to go on.

  • In June the White House spokesman highlighted the fact that an Iraqi nuclear scientist had come forward with parts and documents relating to Saddam Hussein's weapons programme that he had been told to bury in his garden some 12 years earlier.

  • At the end of May the CIA published a lengthy briefing document after an analysis of some trailers that had been discovered which they claimed were mobile plants to produce biological weapons. But not all experts agreed. Even some US intelligence agencies have their doubts. Much of the case regarding the trailers - what experts at the think-tank Global Security have humorously dubbed "the Winnebagos of death" - turns on there being no other obvious use for them: Not exactly the most strenuous scientific methodology!

  • Then there was the evidence uncovered by the UN inspectors themselves prior to the war regarding Iraq's missile programmes. They found that Iraq had increased the range of at least one system to beyond that permitted under restrictions imposed upon Iraq after the previous Gulf War. Iraq had also tried to import banned rocket motors and had constructed an engine test facility, again beyond the requirements needed if it was honouring its obligations.

All of this points to the likely outcome of the Iraq Survey Group's work.

Suspended animation

Iraq clearly had the money and scientific know-how to revive its weapons programmes.

Most experts believe that it also had the strategic rationale to do so, at least if it could get away with it.

The Group may well conclude that Iraq had an elaborate and secret effort to maintain elements of its weapons programmes - in "suspended animation" if you like - ready to be revived once the opportunity came.

The Iraq Survey Group continues to maintain a zero media profile
But this falls short of demonstrating that Iraq's weapons posed some form of imminent danger. And any results claimed by the Group are going to have to face considerable outside scrutiny.

As Gary Samor, of the international institute for strategic studies in London told me: "it would have been far better to have asked the UN inspection teams back into Iraq after the war to complete their work".

"Their ranks," he said "could have been bolstered in any number of ways."

In his view, whatever the Iraq Survey Group comes up with, their evidence is going to have to contend with a huge degree of international scepticism.

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