THE United States last night announced a major expansion of the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, continued to insist that chemical and biological arms would be found.
The Pentagon said the new Iraq Survey Group, a team of 1,400 US, British and Australian experts, would be led by US army Major General Keith Dayton.
They will seek the weapons which the US and UK cited as the main justification for the invasion of Iraq which toppled Saddam Hussein.
The move was announced just hours after Lieutenant Gen James Conway, the leading US marine officer in Iraq, said intelligence was "simply wrong" in leading the military to believe that the invading troops were likely to be attacked with chemical weapons.
There were also reports last night that Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Colin Powell, his US counterpart, had privately expressed serious doubts about the quality of such intelligence before the invasion.
But Mr Blair, in an angry attack on critics, said the allegations that the evidence against Saddam was not damning enough to justify war were "completely absurd".
Departing from his expected line in a speech in Poland, the Prime Minister said: "You have just got to have a little bit of patience.
"I have absolutely no doubt at all that [the evidence] exists because Saddam’s history of weapons of mass destruction is not some invention of the British security services."
Maj Gen Dayton, the director of operations for the Defence Intelligence Agency, said: "The Iraq Survey Group represents a significant expansion of effort in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction as we build on the efforts that are ongoing.
"We may get lucky. We may not. We may find out three months from now that there was a very elaborate deception programme going on that resulted in the destruction of stuff. The goal is to put all the pieces together in what is a very complex jigsaw puzzle."
The new group, with offices in Baghdad, Qatar and Washington, will undertake other tasks including collecting information on terrorism, war crimes and prisoner of war issues. It will replace the US military’s 75th Exploitation Task Force, which has been looking for weapons of mass destruction for two months with no success, despite visiting 220 of 900 suspected sites.
Earlier, Mr Blair quashed growing speculation that Downing Street "sexed up" its dossier on Saddam’s weapons. He categorically denied reports that MI6 was told by his office to "harden up" its weapons file to make the case for war.
Mr Blair was in Warsaw yesterday, to deliver a key speech on European integration. At a press conference with Leszek Miller, the Polish prime minister, Mr Blair said he had "just caught up overnight with some of the allegations that have been made" and added that he wanted to put the record straight.
He continued: "The evidence that we had of weapons of mass destruction was drawn up and accepted by the Joint Intelligence Committee. That ... is evidence the truth of which I have absolutely no doubt about. What’s more, the idea we authorised or made our intelligence agencies invent some piece of evidence is completely absurd."
The failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction in the seven weeks since the fall of Baghdad has dogged Mr Blair during his international trip, which has included visits to troops in Basra and Umm Qasr.
The suggestion by Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, earlier this week that Saddam may have disposed of his arsenals before the war has sparked speculation that allied chiefs are ready to accept no weapons will be found.
Mr Blair’s speech in Warsaw was intended as the launch pad for his plan to reunite Europe and the US during tomorrow’s G8 summit in France.
The meeting, in Evian, will see the first post-war meeting between George Bush, the US president, and Jacques Chirac, the president of France.