21 September 2003

They are called 'The Searchers'. But what are they looking for

Of the group which replaced his inspectors, Dr Blix said dismissively: 'In the beginning, they talked about weapons concretely, and later on they talked about weapons programmes. Maybe they'll find some documents of interest.'

Confronted by the scorn of the former chief inspector, Downing Street quickly urged doubters to wait for the ISG to complete its work. Mr Blair believed the group's report, due within weeks, would provide clear proof of Saddam's guilt over WMD, said a government source, adding that the ISG could come up with 'interesting findings which will lay those doubts to rest'. But the ISG staff on the ground appear to be in the dark about the outcome of their work. The results of early searches and interviews were fed back to colleagues at the 'analytic centre' in Qatar, since when feedback has been low: staff in Iraq have had little guidance from Qatar about what to follow up.

As for when the group's report will come out, all the searchers know is what they have read in media reports, some of which say an interim report will be produced early this week for Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence. No draft has been seen in Baghdad, however. It will be the Pentagon, not the ISG, which decides how much will be released, and when - though there have also been rumours that there is so little to show from the entire exercise that the ISG's findings will never be made public.

Certainly the main focus of the ISG's work does not point to major new revelations. It has been concentrating on past weapons programmes, with most of the documentary work tracking production before the first Gulf War in 1991. The other principal emphasis has been on how specific facilities could have been switched from civilian use to producing prohibited weapons. Though sources will not talk about specific finds, the phrase employed is 'just-in-time capacity'. All this, however, is highly speculative, and nothing like what the pre-war rhetoric led British and American voters to expect.

This sounds like a repeat of the Bush administration's technique with the trailers of mass destruction, the air pollution at Ground Zero, global warming and a number of other issues. Announce a technical investigation and then issue political judgments in the name of the technical inquiry.

Judging from what happened at Brent East, it's not going to work.

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