White House's WMD retreat weakens Blair

• Pressure mounts on Blair as White House position on WMD shifts

• White House awaits Iraq survey group report to 'learn the truth'

• Hutton report into Dr David Kelly's death is published tomorrow

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Key quote: "We want to compare the intelligence before the war with what the Iraq Survey Group learns on the ground" White House press secretary Scott McLellan.

Story in full: THE White House last night signalled a further dramatic retreat on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction as it dropped the repeated assertion that banned weapons would be found in Iraq.

The admission adds to the mounting pressure on Tony Blair ahead of the publication of the Hutton Report tomorrow, and raises more questions about the reasons why the Prime Minister joined George Bush, the US president, in going to war.

Colin Powell, the United States Secretary of State, conceded on Saturday that stocks of banned weapons might never be found in Iraq, after David Kay, a former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, said the failure to find such armaments led him to conclude that they did not exist.

Asked if the US still believed there were banned weapons in Iraq, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, did not repeat past statements that they would be found.

"We want to compare the intelligence before the war with what the Iraq survey group learns on the ground," he said. "We believe it’s important for the Iraq survey group to complete its work so that we have as complete a picture as possible. It will help us learn the truth."

His comments suggest a major shift in the White House, although Mr McClellan insisted the US had been right to invade Iraq. "The decision that we made was the right decision and what we know today only reconfirms that it was the right decision," he said.

Yesterday, John Ashcroft, the US attorney-general, said that the war was justified even if weapons of mass destruction were never found, because it had eliminated the threat that Saddam might again resort to "evil chemistry and evil biology".

The former Iraqi dictator’s willingness to use such weapons was sufficient cause to overthrow his regime, Mr Ashcroft said, alluding to Saddam’s use of chemical and biological weapons against Iraqi Kurds in 1988, and during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.

He added: "Weapons of mass destruction, including evil chemistry and evil biology, are all matters of great concern, not only to the United States but also to the world community. They were the subject of UN [United Nations] resolutions.

"I believe there is a very clear understanding that Saddam Hussein continued to pose a threat."

But Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, insisted that evidence of Saddam’s nuclear, biological or chemical arsenal would still emerge.

He said it was disappointing no weapons had been unearthed, but refused to accept they did not exist. "A great deal more evidence will emerge," he said. "I believe the decision we made on 18 March to take military action was justified then in terms of enforcing international law, and is still more justified now. We have removed a terrible tyrant, we have found scores of thousands of graves of people who were murdered by the Saddam regime."

On Sunday, Dr Lewis Moonie, a defence minister at the time of the Iraq war, appeared to undermine the government’s position when he admitted it was "increasingly looking likely" that the intelligence relied upon ahead of the invasion was "deficient".

His comments echoed those made by Mr Kay, who, after nine months of searching for banned weapons in Iraq, said: "I don’t think they exist."

Asked if Mr Bush owed the US an explanation for the discrepancies between his warnings and his findings, Mr Kay said: "I actually think the intelligence community owes the president, rather than the president owing the American people."

PM takes fight to the wire

TONY Blair last night signalled he would take his battle with rebel Labour MPs over university top-up fees to the wire, as his aides admitted the outcome was still too close to call.

The Prime Minister vowed to use every moment available to him before tonight’s crucial vote.

He will urge dissenting back-benchers not to inflict a defeat on him the day before Lord Hutton publishes his eagerly awaited report into the death of Dr David Kelly.

The signs late last night were not good for Mr Blair. A meeting with the rebel leaders, Nick Brown and George Mudie, ended without agreement, leaving the Prime Minister to tell the MPs: "There are no more compromises. Take it or leave it".

Mr Blair rarely spends time in the tearooms and corridors of Westminster, but yesterday, for 90 minutes, he worked MPs as he has seldom done before.

The timing of the vote has made today and tomorrow the most crucial 48 hours in Mr Blair’s career, with the prospect of damning criticism of the government by Lord Hutton in his report.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman yesterday betrayed the nervousness being felt at No10 when he

said: "The short answer is it’s too close to call. I wouldn’t want to make any prediction."