The US and UK were yesterday scrambling to explain why they had failed to unearth Iraq's weapons program as United Nations inspectors said Baghdad had stepped up efforts to answer outstanding questions even on the day before US-led air strikes began.
Colin Powell, secretary of state, said "it wasn't a figment of anyone's imagination" that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. "There was no doubt in my mind as I went through the intelligence . . . that the evidence was overwhelming."
At the G8 summit in Evian, Tony Blair, UK prime minister, was forced to deflect suggestions by a former cabinet minister that he had decided last September to go to war, whether or not UN support was forthcoming.
"The idea . . . that I made some secret agreement with George Bush last September that we would invade Iraq in any event at a particular time is completely and totally untrue," he said.
But both Congress and the UK parliament appear determined to hold their leaders to account on the issue. Two Senate committees are likely to hold a joint hearing to examine the administration's use of intelligence.
The new report by Hans Blix, chief UN weapons inspector, revealed Baghdad supplied his team with increasingly detailed information on its illicit weapons programmes up to the eve of hostilities. But, even at the end, Iraq failed to allay suspicions that it had something to hide.
UNMOVIC, the UN inspection commission, has continued to analyze data despite being sidelined from the weapons hunt. Its latest report says Iraq provided information on unmanned aircraft and its claimed destruction of anthrax as late as March 19, hours before the first air strikes.
But while "inspections, declarations and documents submitted by Iraq contributed to a better understanding of past weapons programmes, the long list of proscribed items unaccounted for was [not] shortened," it says.
The report identifies a "trend of withholding pertinent information" on suppliers and says that, while Iraq denied that mobile WMD labs existed, providing the UN with pictures of legitimate vehicles they suggested could explain the allegations, "none of the vehicles in these pictures look like the trucks recently described by the coalition".
Over the weekend, the Bush administration faced a barrage of criticism from congressional leaders over the weapons issue.
"We're going to take a look at this," John Warner, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee said in an interview with CNN's Late Edition, cautioning that this did not mean he believed the Bush administration had acted in bad faith.
Bob Graham, the Democratic senator from Florida, said on the program that if the US failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq it would constitute "a serious intelligence failure or the manipulation of that intelligence information to keep the American people in the dark."
© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2003