The debate over Saddam Hussein's banned arsenal turned to bitter recrimination yesterday with the Bush administration fending off charges of doctoring intelligence and conducting a smear campaign against the UN weapons chief.
At the United Nations, the retiring chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, appeared to revel in the embarrassment caused to senior US officials by an exclusive Guardian interview in which he complained he was the target of a smear campaign by some sections of the Pentagon.
In Washington, meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate came under fire for resisting Democrats' calls for public hearings to determine whether there had been manipulation of pre-war intelligence on Iraq.
The conjunction of events frustrates Washington's desire to bury questions about its failure to produce any evidence of the deadly arsenal which was the main reason Britain and America went to war. It also raises the disquieting prospect that the controversy could endure into the 2004 elections, denying George Bush the chance to portray the war as the crowning success of his presidency.
In his conversation with the Guardian, Dr Blix lashed out at his detractors in the Pentagon, saying that in the run-up to the war, Washington had put pressure on his inspectors to produce highly critical reports that could bolster its case for war.
Yesterday, the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, and the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, affirmed their high regard for the departing Swedish diplomat.
"There is no smear campaign I am aware of," Mr Powell said. "I have high regard for Dr Blix. I worked very closely with Dr Blix. I noted the president had confidence in him as well."
Mr Annan said: "He did a good job. He had universal respect for his professionalism."
Mr Powell was forced yesterday to defend charges from Washington that the administration had exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam.
Joe Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, said: "I am not accusing them of cooking the books. I am accusing them of hyping - it's different.
"They took the truth and they embellished it in my view."
In a series of interviews on his clashes with the Pentagon, Dr Blix told ABC's Good Morning America that the US intelligence had proved faulty.
"I agree that the Iraqis are very clever. They have learned, had many years to learn how to hide things," he said. "But nevertheless, most of [the] intelligence has not been solid. Maybe they thought it was solid, but it hasn't led us to the right places."
From his corner, Mr Annan also pointed out that the intelligence supplied to the UN inspectors on suspected sites in Iraq had failed to produce any trace of weapons.
The question that has returned to haunt the Bush administration, however, was whether that intelligence was faulty by design, doctored to help a cabal of rightwing ideologues argue the case for war.
In Washington yesterday, Republican senators closed ranks around the administration, resisting Democrat demands for a full-scale public investigation of intelligence gathering in the months before the war.
Two Senate committees have already begun to review CIA documents estimating Iraq's weapons factories and stockpiles of deadly biological and chemical materials. However, high-ranking Democrats are not content with the closed hearings, and are demanding a more public forum that will explicitly examine the charge of whether intelligence was misused.
The prospect of that has infuriated Republicans, who now control both houses of Congress and therefore the committees that will be overseeing the intelligence review.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003