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Hans Blix: Bush and Blair behaved as if they were on a 'witch hunt' over Iraqi weapons

The Monday Interview: Retired Chief UN Weapons Inspector

By Anne Penketh in Stockholm

08 March 2004

Hans Blix is chuckling as he emerges from his study and settles into an armchair in his spacious Stockholm flat to leaf through a document.

The document is no laughing matter: it is the Blair Government's now-notorious dossier from September, 2002, which framed the case for war on Iraq, and indirectly led to the death of David Kelly, the government arms expert. But Mr Blix, the former chief UN weapons inspector, smiles as he cites examples of the Prime Minister's "faith-based" approach to intelligence.

"Listen to this," he says. "This is Blair speaking, 'I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt'." Mr Blix is mocking Mr Blair's uncritical view of intelligence, which prevented the Prime Minister backing down even when the UN inspectors returned from Iraq unable to report that they had the "smoking gun" which would demonstrate "beyond doubt" that Saddam Hussein had rebuilt his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

Today he is angry at the lack of attention paid by the British and American governments to the inspectors' findings in the rush to topple Saddam. "Why the hell didn't they pay more attention to us?" he asks.

When Mr Blix, now 75, was called out of retirement to become chief UN weapons inspector in March 2000, he suspected that Iraq retained lethal stocks of WMD. Like other weapons inspectors, including Dr Kelly, who had witnessed first-hand the "cat and mouse" game played by Iraq in the 1990s, Mr Blix was hawkish. After all, under his watch as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Iraqis had been caught red-handed as they worked on a clandestine nuclear programme.

"My gut feelings, which I kept to myself, suggested to me that Iraq still engaged in prohibited activities and retained prohibited items, and that it had the documents to prove it," he says in a new book, Disarming Iraq: the search for weapons of mass destruction. This is why he would not challenge Mr Blair's claim on Friday about Saddam's WMD, that in November, 2002, when resolution 1441 was adopted, "everyone thought he had them".

But Mr Blix's doubts set in when the inspectors were allowed back into Iraq at the end of that month, exactly four years after they were pulled out, as the US/UK bombing campaign of Operation Desert Fox started. They inspected suspicious sites, acting on tip-offs from the intelligence agencies, but they found no credible evidence of WMD. " I said, 'If this is the best, what is the rest?'" In fact, he adds: "Considering how misleading much of the intelligence given us eventually proved to be, perhaps it was a blessing we did not get more."

He tells of a conversation with Mr Blair, one month before the war, amid a controversy over the alleged presence of mobile biological weapons production facilities after the inspectors had been unable to confirm the intelligence claims.

"I added that it would prove paradoxical and absurd if 250,000 troops were to invade Iraq and find very little. Blair responded that the intelligence was clear Saddam had reconstituted his weapons of mass destruction programme. Blair clearly relied on the intelligence and was convinced, while my faith in intelligence had been shaken."

What Mr Blix still cannot understand is why his doubts and those of his professional teams of trained inspectors failed to make an impression on Mr Blair and President George Bush, who continued to mislead the public with categorical assertions about the existence of WMD with the fervency of religious crusaders. He accuses the British and US governments of "distorting" the reports of the weapons inspectors, who had said that amounts of chemical and biological weapons remained unaccounted for. This became an accusation that Iraq "retained" chemical and biological weapons.

Worse, he says, the Bush administration actively sought to undermine the inspectors, accusing them of playing down the threat from Saddam's WMD, particularly after Mr Blix refused to brand the discovery of an Iraqi drone as a "smoking gun". He adds: "I still find it insulting if they believed that our assessments were prompted by a wish to avoid finding incriminating evidence."

He also feels insulted by the lack of consideration with which Americans treated the inspectors. "I am flabbergasted that the American military could believe there were such easily available large stores of this stuff when Unscom (the previous inspection regime) hadn't seen any, and we hadn't seen any. They had such a low opinion of the inspectors."

Mr Blix's doubts increased further after the war, when Saddam's chief weapons expert, Amer al-Saadi, was taken away in a US Jeep, still insisting on the official Iraq line that all the WMD had been destroyed after the first Gulf War in 1991. "It was only then that I said to myself, 'There is nothing there'."

Today, in the comfort of his flat scattered with rugs and modern Swedish paintings and as he embarks on a new career at the head of an independent Stockholm WMD commission, Mr Blix admits he feels vindicated for his cautious and critical approach. His old nemesis, David Kay, the former US chief weapons hunter, threw in the towel, proclaiming: "We are all wrong." But Mr Blix maintains he was right. "I don't like to have any glee because the matter is far too serious for that. But yes, I think the attitude we had of a critical examination of the evidence, that is vindicated."

Although Mr Blix says he is not bitter, he is scathing about the "faith-based" approach of Messrs Bush and Blair which he says was tantamount to a "witch hunt". After a conversation with John Wolf, Assistant US Secretary of State for Non-proliferation, who is accused of obtaining secret information from his office, he says: "I understood his formulations to say, 'The witches exist; you are appointed to deal with these witches; testing whether there are witches is only a dilution of the witch-hunt'."

His account is particularly damaging for Dick Cheney, the Vice-President who continued to insist that Iraq had "nuclear weapons" long after the evidence proved the contrary. Given Mr Blix's IAEA background, he is well-placed to know that US statements about Iraq's nuclear potential were "too alarming or exaggerated".

In the light of the bugging revelations, he is clearly smarting. "Although it's nice they were listening to us, why weren't they paying attention to what we said? They might have learnt something." Some leaders did believe the inspectors. Mr Blix says Jacques Chirac, the French President, had a healthy disrespect for intelligence. Although the French intelligence services were convinced WMD remained in Iraq, Mr Chirac's thinking "seemed to be dominated by the conviction that Iraq did not pose a threat that justified armed intervention".

Mr Chirac believed that the intelligence services "sometimes intoxicate each other". So were the French right? "I think they were, yes. Chirac was right that the intelligence agencies intoxicated each other; I think they were right on the second resolution, they were right also in saying that one should defer, that one should have more inspections.

"They did not say that they would always say 'no' to war. The Americans might have suspected that, but clearly March was too early a date." So what were Mr Blair's channels that made Mr Blair so certain of the Iraqi threat? Defectors, certainly. "They wanted Saddam gone." And the weapons inspectors, many of whom from the Unscom teams of the 1990s remained as government advisers. Mr Blix admits they must share the blame.

"Where was [Mr Blair] getting his information from? He could have had reports from British agents that went further than the [Unscom] reports did." Mr Blix does praise the British Government for pursuing the inspection route - at least in public - to the bitter end. "I never doubted that Blair was strongly advocating inspections all the way through; that the resistance to that must have come from the Americans and mainly from the Pentagon side. Even to the last they were trying with the inspection path."

But how sincere was the Government? "They certainly tried very hard." Mr Blix takes pains to stress that he is no pacifist. While he maintains that the Iraqi invasion was unjustified based on the nature of the weapons threat, "you can take another line, on humanitarian grounds. I would be in favour of that." From that perspective, Mr Blix sounds remarkably like Mr Blair, who complained in his speech on Friday that international law, as presently constituted, meant that "a regime can systematically brutalise and oppress its people and there is nothing anyone can do".

On the wall of Mr Blix's study is a framed letter from Bill Clinton, congratulating him after his retirement on his 16 years at the head of the IAEA. "I don't expect I'll be getting one from Bush," Mr Blix says drily.

Disarming Iraq, the Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Bloomsbury, 16.99

THE CV:

Born: 1928 in Uppsala, Sweden

Career: 1963-76, adviser on international law at Swedish Foreign Ministry; 1978, Swedish Foreign Minister; 1981-97, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (retired1997); January 2000, executive chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission; January 2004, chairman of independent international commission on WMD, based in Stockholm.

Married to Eva Kettis, two sons