Britain and the United States suffered a fresh blow last night when their main justification for war was undermined by reports that special forces have failed to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
As Tony Blair launched a charm offensive to persuade the Arab world to understand his decision to go to war, senior officials in Washington said that intelligence information about weapons of mass destruction at 10 sites had proved to be unfounded.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that tests had proved negative at all "urgent" sites in the western desert. "All the searches have turned up negative," a staff officer told thenewspaper. "The munitions that have been found have all been conventional."
Special operations forces from the US, Britain and Australia are understood to have seized the sites which were believed by US central command to house chemical warheads, Scud missiles and eight-wheeled transporter-erector launchers, known as TELs.
Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, attempted to play down the findings. He told ABC's This Week that banned weapons were not in areas controlled by allied forces.
"We know where they are, they are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north of that," he said.
But the failure to uncover weapons at sites identified by intelligence will be a severe blow to Tony Blair and George Bush, who attacked Iraq on the basis that Saddam Hussein has the weapons.