British Foreign Secretary Jack
Straw (L), with US Secretary of
State Colin Powell

The British Foreign Office has denied the report which was published in the British newspaper The Guardian, on Saturday.

According to transcripts of their conversation, Straw and Powell voiced concern regarding intelligence on Iraqi weapons.

The encounter came shortly before a key UN Security Council meeting on 5 February, in which Powell presented what he claimed was clear evidence that Iraq was concealing banned weapons, the Guardian said.

The newspaper’s story was based on information from an unnamed diplomatic source, who the paper said had read a transcript of the conversation between Straw and Powell.

The transcript recorded Straw stressing that assertions being made by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W Bush about Saddam Hussein's arsenals could not be proven.

Powell is allegedly quoted as saying he was "apprehensive" about intelligence assessments containing circumstantial evidence. He later told Straw that he hoped the facts, when they came out, would not "explode in their faces".

According to the Guardian, the documents had been leaked by diplomats who were supportive of the use of force against Baghdad at the time, but now feel they were lied to about its justification.

But the Foreign Office dismissed the report as "simply untrue" and insisted that "no such meeting took place" between Powell and Straw.

In Warsaw on Friday, Blair dismissed as "completely absurd" the idea that intelligence agencies fabricated evidence that Iraq had such weapons in order to justify war.

Nevertheless, the timing of such a report comes at a crucial juncture in the continued search for illegal Iraqi weapons.

Experts going to Iraq

The United States has announced that 1,300 experts would be sent to Iraq as part of expanded search for weapons of mass destruction.

Dubbed the Iraqi Survey Group, it comprises of experts from Britain, the US, and Australia. US Major General Keith Dayton, is leading the team.

"The Iraq Survey Group represents a significant expansion in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction," he said, adding that it would be "a deliberate process and a long-term effort."

IAEA inspectors will be returning
to Iraq in early June

Australian Defense Minister, Robert Hill, said on Saturday the purpose of the expanded search team was to get the full picture of the WMDs situation in Iraq.

Speaking at an Asian Security Conference in Singapore, Hill said the search was already producing results but "whether these so-called smoking guns as such can be found, I don't know."

IAEA also going to Iraq

Meanwhile, for the first time since the end of the war, the International Atomic Energy Agency is planning to send a team to Iraq.

They will be conducting safety inspections at an Iraqi nuclear facility that might have been looted, an agency spokesman said on Friday.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky cautioned: "These are not weapons inspections. We are planning to send a team to Iraq tentatively next Wednesday, 4 June, with the purpose of verifying nuclear material held at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Centre," he said.

"This work flows from Iraq's obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty," he added.

Since the end of the war, the Bush and Blair administrations have been facing increasing international pressure to supply evidence that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Blair has continued to state that weapons will be found. However, US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld admitted this past week that US-led forces might not be able to uncover any of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.