Saddam, master of useless spin
Observations on Iraq
I doubt that the Iraqi ministry of information - with its shabby rooms filled with shuffling men smoking cigarettes and drinking glasses of tea - will ever have a rapid response unit to rival Millbank. But the swift counter to the Prime Minister's dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction showed great media savvy.
"For the past month, Mr Blair has been talking about his treasure trove," said General Amir al Saadi, President Saddam Hussein's adviser on weapons inspection, to assembled foreign and Iraqi journalists. "We are thankful to the people in the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress and the British public at large for challenging Mr Blair to produce his evidence or shut up."
Earlier in the day, a small group of British journalists had been taken to sites of our choosing mentioned in the dossier. We insisted on visiting the al-Qa'qa complex, which the dossier says is producing phosgene gas that "can . . . be used . . . as a chemical agent or as a precursor for nerve agent". This is the complex where the Iraqis manufacture all the powdered explosives and propellants for the country's munitions. Signs outside (which we were not allowed to film) read "The Heroes of Military Production Salute Saddam Hussein". The director general, Sinan Rasim Said - an engineer who said he was a civilian and spoke perfect English - showed us the suspect plant that, he said, made ethyl centralite, a stabiliser for explosives. The unit was approved and tagged by Unscom weapons inspectors in the 1990s. Like most installations I have seen in Iraq, it was outdated and half- broken. The chemical process, Rasim Said explained, produced phosgene in a closed-reaction loop and thus could not be extracted. "One hundred per cent, Mr Blair is lying," he added.
According to the dossier, the suspect biological plant we visited, the Amariyah vaccine and sera facility, is storing biological agents. New warehouses have aroused suspicion. We were allowed to roam at will, but the stores we found were half-empty, containing a few dozen boxes of Unicef-monitored vaccines and some new fridges.
I know better than to base conclusions on this visit. I doubt that Saddam Hussein's regime has abandoned all ambitions to make weapons of mass destruction, and suspect that somewhere - in mobile laboratories or underground facilities - it may have hidden old stocks or be developing new. But innuendo jostles with fact in the British dossier. Many of the sites mentioned were thoroughly examined by Unscom, and the construction of new warehouses at old facilities is scarcely evidence that Iraq suddenly poses an immediate threat to world peace.
We might get nearer the truth were the weapons inspectors to return and follow up the hints and questions in the dossier. The Prime Minister says the inspectors should "be allowed back to do their job properly", by which he means that a new Security Council resolution will be designed to be unacceptable to the Iraqis, so the inspectors will not return. President Bush has made up his mind, and Blair will follow; we are on course for war. The Iraqis can take us to as many suspect sites as they like, but it is too late for their spin.
Lindsey Hilsum is Channel 4 News diplomatic correspondent