So where are they, Mr Blair?

Not one illegal warhead. Not one drum of chemicals. Not one incriminating document. Not one shred of evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction in more than a month of war and occupation

20 April 2003

So where are they? In case we forget, distracted by the thought of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, looted museums and gathering political chaos, the proclaimed purpose of this war, vainly pursued by Britain and the US through the United Nations, was to disarm Saddam Hussein and to destroy weapons of mass destruction deemed a menace to the entire world.

But, Mr Blair, where are they? A month has passed since American and British troops entered Iraq, more than a week since the fall of Baghdad. But thus far not even a sniff. Not a drum of VX or mustard gas, not a phial of botulin or anthrax, not a shred of evidence that Iraq was assembling a nuclear weapons programme.

But that wasn't what they told us. Remember Colin Powell at the Security Council two months ago (though today it seems another age on another planet): the charts, the grainy intelligence satellite pictures, the crackly tapes of the intercepted phone conversations among Iraqi officials? How plausible it all sounded, especially when propounded by the most plausible figure in the Bush ad- ministration.

And what about those other claims, wheeled out on various occasions by Messrs Bush, Blair, Cheney and Rumsfeld? The Iraqi drones that were supposed to be able to attack the US east coast, the imports of aluminium tubes allegedly intended for centrifuges to enrich uranium, the unaccounted-for lethal nerve and germ agents, in quantities specified down to the last gallon or pound, as if exact numbers alone constituted proof. All, it seems, egregious products of the imagination of the intelligence services – one commodity whose existence need never be doubted.

Maybe the Saddam regime was diabolically cunning in the concealment of these weap-ons, but the shambolic manner of its passing suggests otherwise. Maybe, as those "US officials" continue to suggest from behind their comfortable screen of anonymity, the weapons have been shipped to Syria for "safekeeping". But that theory too is dismissed by independent experts.

Indeed, it collapses at the first serious examination. Why should Saddam part with his most effective means of defence, when the survival of his regime and himself was on the line? Nor will that hoary and disingenuous line advanced by our political masters wash any longer – oh yes, we know a lot more, but if we told you, we would be showing our hand to Saddam and endangering precious intelligence sources.

Just believe us, old boy, the Government told us, and you'll see we were right all along. And the British, being on the whole a reasonable and trusting people, mostly accepted the word of their rulers.

Well, Saddam is now gone. And with him has disappeared any conceivable risk to those intelligence sources (assuming they ever existed). So just what was this information on the basis of which Washington and its faithful ally launched an unprovoked invasion of a ramshackle third world country? A country with a very nasty regime to be sure, but not a great deal nastier than some other potential candidates for "liberation" in the Middle East and elsewhere.

If only for the credibility and reputation of our country, this newspaper hopes that enough weapons of mass destruction will be discovered to justify a war that has grievously weakened the UN, strained the Atlantic alliance and split the European Union.

But they'd better be found pretty soon. Having rushed into war to suit its own military and domestic electoral timetable, the Bush administration now has the nerve to claim that a year may be required to establish the whereabouts of the WMD – and that it may never do so unless led to them by co-operative Iraqis. But no longer can London and Washington rely simply on the impossibility for the former Iraqi regime to prove a negative, that the weapons do not exist. It is up to the "coalition" of two to provide proof positive that they do.

This pointless war cannot be un-made. But we urgently need to know that the invasion was not illegal as well. With Britain and the US in full control of Iraq, a month should suffice. If no "smoking gun" has turned up by then, a full parliamentary inquiry is essential – into the competence and accountability of the intelligence services, and into how our Government used them to sell a mistaken and reckless policy.