Talking to journalists a day after a top US weapons hunter ruled out WMDs in Iraq, Powell on Saturday neither confirmed nor ruled out the presence of a nuclear and biological arsenal in Iraq.

"What is the open question: how many stocks they had, if any, and if they had any, where did they go? And if they didn’t have any, why wasn’t that known beforehand," Powell told journalists.

His latest comments marked a major climb down from his earlier shrill rhetoric, when he strongly insisted Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs.

Elusive WMD

But chastised after months of futile search and an embarrassing admission from David Kay, who resigned as the chief of the Iraq Survey Group on Friday, Powell took the middle road.

For the first time, Powell wondered aloud why it was not known beforehand if Iraq did not possess WMDs.

On criticism about pre-war intelligence on Iraqi weapons, Powell said US intelligence and analysts were "correct with respect to intention, with respect to capability to develop such weapons, with respect to programmes."

US and its allies had gone to war against Iraq with the stated intention of disarming it of its WMD arsenal.

But Kay now says the WMDs may never be found.

"I don’t think they existed. What everyone was talking about is stockpiles produced after the end of the last Gulf war and I don’t think there was a large-scale production programme in the 1990s," he said in media interviews.