They are called 'The Searchers'. But what are they looking for?

Tony Blair's hopes of finding WMD lie with the Iraq Survey Group. But, report Raymond Whitaker and Glen Rangwala, they don't appear to have much to do and have even less to report

21 September 2003

Independent (UK)

Some 1,400 British and American experts are supposedly scouring Iraq to prove what Tony Blair and George Bush claimed before the war - that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which posed an imminent threat to the world. But most of the Iraq Survey Group, the body created by the victorious coalition to replace the UN weapons inspectors, is not even in Iraq at the moment.

And only a small fraction of the ISG is actually assigned to looking for WMD. The site inspections group, known to colleagues as "the searchers", has 200 personnel, but that includes back-up staff, translators and drivers. Even the searchers do very little work on visiting suspect sites. "That was what the 75th Expeditionary Force were doing, and they don't need to replay that task," said a source in Baghdad. Another joked: "They have spent their time doing their laundry and napping."

The ISG engaged in a flurry of activity when it first came into Iraq in late June and early July, conducting a full range of interviews with Iraqis previously involved in Saddam's weapons programmes, for example. But the inspectors have failed to contact many of those they did not take into custody at the time, such as a nuclear scientist who was interviewed by the ISG early on and has heard nothing since.

In Washington, meanwhile, officials claim that former weapons scientists may have to be given immunity from prosecution to "overcome their fear" of the former regime. The hope is that scientists who say that Saddam's regime destroyed its WMD more than a decade ago might change their tune once they have immunity. But last week their view received powerful support from Hans Blix, the former chief weapons inspector. Dr Blix, who has become ever more outspoken since his retirement in the summer, said he now believes it is almost certain that Iraq got rid of its illegal weapons immediately after the first Gulf War. He condemned British and American "spin" on WMD, saying: "We know that advertisers will advertise a refrigerator in terms they do not quite believe in, but you expect governments to be more serious and have more credibility."

London and Washington had "over-interpreted" the intelligence on WMD, Dr Blix went on. "They were convinced that Saddam was going in this direction ... but in the Middle Ages people were convinced there were witches. They looked for them and they certainly found them. This is a bit risky. I think we were more judicious, saying we want to have real evidence."

Of the group which replaced his inspectors, Dr Blix said dismissively: "In the beginning, they talked about weapons concretely, and later on they talked about weapons programmes. Maybe they'll find some documents of interest."

Confronted by the scorn of the former chief inspector, Downing Street quickly urged doubters to wait for the ISG to complete its work. Mr Blair believed the group's report, due within weeks, would provide clear proof of Saddam's guilt over WMD, said a government source, adding that the ISG could come up with "interesting findings which will lay those doubts to rest". But the ISG staff on the ground appear to be in the dark about the outcome of their work. The results of early searches and interviews were fed back to colleagues at the "analytic centre" in Qatar, since when feedback has been low: staff in Iraq have had little guidance from Qatar about what to follow up.

As for when the group's report will come out, all the searchers know is what they have read in media reports, some of which say an interim report will be produced early this week for Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence. No draft has been seen in Baghdad, however. It will be the Pentagon, not the ISG, which decides how much will be released, and when - though there have also been rumours that there is so little to show from the entire exercise that the ISG's findings will never be made public.

Certainly the main focus of the ISG's work does not point to major new revelations. It has been concentrating on past weapons programmes, with most of the documentary work tracking production before the first Gulf War in 1991. The other principal emphasis has been on how specific facilities could have been switched from civilian use to producing prohibited weapons. Though sources will not talk about specific finds, the phrase employed is "just-in-time capacity". All this, however, is highly speculative, and nothing like what the pre-war rhetoric led British and American voters to expect.

And while the Hutton inquiry casts doubt on Downing Street's case for war - most notably the claim that Saddam had WMD ready for use within 45 minutes, which Dr Blix has called a "fundamental mistake" - the White House is faring no better. Few of its weapons claims have gone unchallenged, and now another has fallen down.

"Iraq has unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons," President Bush declared last October. "We're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the United States." His Vice President, Dick Cheney, told congressional leaders at private meetings of the danger of silent death from the skies, while in February the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, told the UN Security Council: "Iraq has developed spray devices that could be used on unmanned aerial vehicles with ranges far beyond what is permitted by the Security Council. A UAV launched from a vessel off the American coast could reach hundreds of miles inland."

However, The Wall Street Journal revealed last week that the US Air Force, after studying Iraq's pilotless drones, had concluded that they were too small and too ill-equipped to do anything of the sort. It issued a little-noticed report saying so last October, at the time the President was stoking up the threat.

But that was not the only retraction. Last week, only three days after Mr Cheney spoke of Iraq as the "geographic base" of terrorists targeting America, "most especially on 9/11", Mr Bush was forced to admit for the first time that there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the attacks on New York and Washington. While he has never explicitly made the connection, his administration has consistently mentioned Iraq and al-Qa'ida in the same breath, and the US public has drawn its own conclusions: a recent poll showed 70 per cent of Americans believe Saddam was personally involved on 11 September 2001.

And the President went on to argue that the former Iraqi regime did have links with al-Qa'ida. Like much else, the proof of that has yet to be found.