The Senate Intelligence Committee on the Iraq war found that most of the key judgments in the intelligence community's October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate "… were either overstated or were not supported by underlying raw intelligence".

The report stated that reasons given for invading and occupying Iraq were based on erroneous information and often relied on unsubstantiated sources who were later revealed to belong to the major exiled Iraqi opposition groups in power in Iraq today.

The committee's findings seem to confirm earlier media reports which cited nervousness and apprehension ahead of US Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the UN Security Council on 5 February 2003.

Powell had been worried about the weight of some of the evidence cited in his presentation, which was central to the Bush administration's efforts to convince the world body of Iraq's imminent threat.

Irrefutable evidence?

At the UN, Powell had said that he would submit irrefutable evidence to the council that Iraq was in possession of an active weapons of mass destruction programme, pursuing to expand that programme, and was in collusion with "terrorist" affiliates, notably al-Qaida.

One aspect of the evidence relied on the intercepted taped conversations allegedly between two high-ranking Iraqi military officials discussing ways to deceive UN inspectors.

The two men mention illicit equipment manufactured in the al-Kindi company in northern Iraq. What Powell failed to mention at the time – and US media failed to report - is that 15 IAEA inspectors conducted a radiological survey of the al-Kindi premises on 19 December 2002.

Powell (L) told the UN Iraq was
an imminent threat to the world

According to an IAEA press release, and subsequent testimony from the inspectors, the International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) reported that the group had inspected areas of the company that manufacture products for commercial use and took extensive samples from a water-treatment plant.

UNMOVIC reported that al-Kindi is a missile and rocket-development site, which also produces electronic and industrial products for the civil sector. But they found no illicit activity.

Further inaccuracies

The second piece of evidence focused on aluminium tubes Iraq admitted to have imported in September 2002. The Bush administration alleged that the tubes were a crucial part of manufacturing centrifuges central to any nuclear weapons programme.

Just a week prior to the Powell appearance at the UN, IAEA head Muhammad al-Baradai had publicly dispelled notions that the tubes were destined for a clandestine nuclear weapons programme.

"From our analysis to date, it appears that the aluminum tubes would be consistent with the purpose stated by Iraq and unless modified would not be suitable for manufacture centrifuges. However, we are still investigating this issue," al-Baradai reported to the UN on 27 January 2003.

Why did Powell contradict the IAEA and persist that the tubes are a "whimpering gun" when the world's leading atomic and nuclear institutions concluded the contrary?

Sketches made by CIA operatives
were later unsubstantiated

A third aspect of Powell's evidence focused on pictures, graphics and satellite images of Iraqi sites where the US alleged there was plenty of illicit activity.

The Bush administration had in September claimed that the Tuwaitha site in Iraq had undergone reconstruction to house nuclear weapons-related centrifuges.

UNMOVIC visited this and other sites. They came up empty. Vigorous soil, air, and water samples were taken of Tuwaitha, and other sites, and analysed. Any chemical, biological, or nuclear activity leaves traces and residue - like DNA evidence - that once analysed could act as irrefutable proof.

Once again, UNMOVIC and IAEA tests came up empty.

Satellite imagery

Powell provided satellite imagery of the al-Taji complex near Baghdad and showed specific areas in al-Taji where illicit chemical and biological weapons were being allegedly researched and stored.

UNMOVIC inspectors had routinely and persistently visited, revisited, and re-revisited the al-Taji complex since early December and found nothing to substantiate Powell's allegations. The inspectors intruded into people's houses, scaled walls, took air, water and soil samples in and around al-Taji and produced no evidence of illicit activity.

According to UNMOVIC press releases, an early December visit by inspectors saw them spend more than three hours at Nasr (Victory) complex in the al-Taji area, where there are factories producing light conventional ammunition and heavy civilian machinery.

Ironically, these facilities had been mentioned by the US in recent months as sites suspected of producing banned weapons.

Inspectors found nothing.

UNMOVIC teams searched all the
debated sites but found nothing

In late December 2002, IAEA and UNMOVIC inspectors visited the al-Azz Company and the Salam Factory in al-Taji. The two produce generic electronic equipment and communications equipment for both civilian and military applications. Once again, their intrusive inspections, along with water, air and soil samples found nothing.

In late January 2003, the IAEA teams inspected the al-Sumood industrial manufacturing plant in the al-Taji area north of Baghdad. A second group of inspectors performed a motorised radiation survey in the al-Taji area. That team later joined the first at al-Sumood and carried out a manual radiation survey of buildings and stores. They also found nothing.

In the north of Iraq, the al-Kindi company came under further scrutiny from a third IAEA team in late January; they inspected the al-Kindi Research and Development Company near Mosul and found nothing.

Mobile labs?

In early February, air sampling equipment was installed by the IAEA and was operating on the roof of the Canal Hotel, the operations base for the agency's inspections in Iraq.

"This is the initial step in the re-installation of both fixed and mobile air samplers as part of wide-area environmental monitoring in Iraq," said Hiro Ueki, UNMOVIC Baghdad spokesperson, at the time.

In April 2003, as US officials maintained
the existence of mobile chemical weapons
labs, a research team determined that 11 unearthed flat-bed trucks had millions
of dollars of hi-tech equipment earmarked
for conventional - not chemical - weapons research and use.

The mobile air samplers detected nothing but smog over Baghdad.

The operation was not reported in the media.

Powell also chose to ignore that air, soil and water sampling in those areas is tantamount to DNA testing and the most damning proof any inspections regime can conjure. These and all other tests were proven negative.

Claims of Iraqi mobile bio-weapons units were also a crucial issue in Powell's speech.

Powell charged that the Iraqis possessed such units but that none could be found because Iraq was hiding them. No pictures, documents, or eyewitness accounts have ever been produced to verify the existence of these units.

Iraq and al-Qaida?

Powell also stressed the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida, but was careful not to imply that Iraq was behind, or connected in any way, to the 9-11 attacks in the US.

Powell did not answer reporters' questions why the BBC had a day earlier published an article in which UK intelligence sources had leaked that they had not found any evidence that Iraq had at any time aided, abetted or even ideologically supported al-Qaida.

"The classified document, written three weeks ago, says there has been contact between the two in the past, but that the relationship had foundered due to mistrust and incompatible ideologies. That conclusion contradicts one of the charges laid against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by the United States and Britain - that he has cultivated contacts with the group blamed for the 11 September attacks," said the BBC.

Blame the CIA

In April 2004, Powell admitted that the evidence delivered at his 5 February 2003 presentation "now appears not to be the case that it was that solid".

"At the time I was preparing the presentation, it was presented to me as being solid," the secretary said.

He hinted that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was at fault for placing such evidence into his Security Council presentation portfolio.

"If the sources fall apart, we need to find out how we got ourselves into that position," Powell said, "and I've had discussions with the CIA about that."

Al-Baradai appealed for more
time to verify Iraqi compliance

In January 2003, al-Baradai stressed that, given a few more months, UN inspectors could conclusively declare that Iraq had not revived its nuclear weapons programme.

"Mr President [of the Security Council], to conclude, we have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapon programme since the elimination of the programme in the 1990s," he said.

"However, our work is steadily progressing and should be allowed to run its natural course. With our verification system now in place, barring exceptional circumstances and provided there is sustained, proactive cooperation by Iraq, we should be able within the next few months to provide credible assurance that Iraq has no nuclear weapon programme."

The war was launched on 20 March 2003.