MONDAY INTERVIEW: HANS BLIX - Bush and Blair Behaved as If They Were on a `Witch Hunt' over Iraqi Weapons, Says Blix ; HANS BLIX RETIRED CHIEF UN WEAPONS INSPECTOR

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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". …