POLISH troops have found four French missiles in central Iraq that they believe were only manufactured earlier this year, it was revealed last night.
France was one of the loudest opponents of the war to oust the Iraqi dictator and has continued to be a thorn in the side of the coalition, only yesterday criticising a United Nations resolution intended to coax troops and cash from reluctant UN members to rebuild Iraq.
A Pentagon official said: "The whole country is awash with weapons and we come across weapons every day. But this is interesting."
The discovery of the advanced anti-aircraft missiles, in an ammunition dump near the Hillah region, came as the United States and UK governments defended their decision to go to war with Iraq, in the face of an interim report revealing no weapons of mass destruction had been found.
George Bush, the US president, insisted the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) report into the weapons showed Saddam had actively deceived the international community and was a danger to the world.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said there was no doubt from all the evidence that Iraq indeed posed a current and serious threat.
The discovery of the missiles by Polish troops raises fresh questions about the role of France in arming Saddam, as well as reviving memories of the French sale of Exocet missiles to Argentina before the Falklands war.
France has long had a close relationship with Iraq, selling the country an estimated 3 billion worth of weapons, including Exocets and Mirage fighters during the Iran war.
The Roland series of short-range anti-aircraft missiles is built by the Euromissile consortium, a joint venture between the Arospatiale-Matra company and Germany’s DaimlerChrysler Aerospace. Roland missiles have previously been discovered at Baghdad airport, although France at the time insisted they were models no longer in production.
The missile system is mobile and defence experts say it is highly effective against aircraft attacking at low and medium altitude. Under a strict trade embargo imposed by the UN, Iraq was barred from importing arms after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Eugeniusz Mleczak, a spokesman for the Polish defence ministry, said the missiles were discovered on 29 September and made safe.
"It is not the first time Polish troops found ammunition in Iraq but, to our surprise, these missiles were produced in 2003," he added.
A spokeswoman for the French foreign ministry denied knowledge of the missiles, saying: "Since July 1990, France has not authorised a single shipment of military equipment to Iraq." Similar accusations were made in the US media in April, she added.
In 1980-81, 13 Roland-1 missile systems were shipped to Iraq and from 1983 to 1986, 100 Roland-2 missile systems. The Roland-3 had never been exported to Iraq, the spokeswoman said, adding: "It is not credible to say that the Roland missiles found a few days ago were produced in 2003 and delivered just before the Anglo-American intervention.
"Let’s be absolutely clear about this - no military exports to Iraq were licensed after July 1990."
It was unlikely the missiles could be used 17-18 years after their delivery, she said.
The discovery could offer some credence to the British and US governments’ argument that more time is needed to uncover the full extent of Saddam’s weapons stockpiles. Yesterday, both governments were keen to talk up the discovery by the survey group, the 1,200-strong body combing Iraq for signs of weapons of mass destruction, of a wealth of information said to point to Saddam’s intention to revive his weapons programme.
At the same time, they were playing down the failure of the group to find any hard evidence of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, save for one vial of the biological agent botulinum.
Mr Straw denied the report by Dr David Kay had undermined the case for military action and maintained the weapons may still be found. "The fact they have not found weapons obviously does not mean weapons were not there," he said. "There is no doubt that they did pose a current and serious threat."
Dr Kay’s interim report to the US Congress confirmed evidence of weapons-related programmes and indicated that Saddam had remained committed to acquiring nuclear weapons. He said he would need another six to nine months of searching and 360 million more to complete his task.
Mr Bush insisted the investigation showed Saddam had violated UN resolutions to disarm. "So he’s no longer in power and the world is better for it," he added.
The president seized on possible evidence of covert programmes to make proscribed weapons and said work remained to be done.
But critics said the report showed there had been no justification for war. Hans Blix, a former chief UN weapons inspector, said the US-led coalition had failed to prove that Iraq posed a manifest and imminent threat and maintained UN criteria for military action had not been met.