U.K. Believed Iraq Dismantled Weapons Before 2003 Invasion

Britain believed Iraq had dismantled its chemical and biological weapons in the run-up to the 2003 invasion but thought it was possible they could be reassembled, the former head of the country's Joint Intelligence Committee said Tuesday.

John Scarlett, who chaired the committee from 2001 to 2004 before moving to MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence agency, told a panel of inquiry that it had long been believed that Iraq had been dismantling weapons in order to conceal them.

On March 7, 2003, Scarlett said an intelligence report revealed that "Iraq had no missiles which could reach Israel and none which could carry germ or biological weapons. The leadership had ordered the dismantlement of the missiles known as al-Hussein ... to avoid discovery, and they thought they could be quickly reassembled."

A second report, made a few days later, said intelligence had been received that chemical weapons "had been disassembled and dispersed and would be difficult to reassemble."

Scarlett made the comments to a panel probing Britain's role in the Iraq war. The inquiry is most extensive look yet at the conflict, which was deeply unpopular in Britain, triggered huge protests and left 179 British soldiers dead.

Scarlett said the March assessments didn't contradict or change the earlier belief that Saddam had access to weapons and that the regime was dismantling them. He said the reports didn't say the weapons didn't exist — but that they might be difficult to find.

Asked if the reports were a "game-changing moment," Scarlett said no. "They were not," he said.

Britain joined in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq a few days later.

The five-person panel, led by former civil servant John Chilcot, is expected to report late next year on lessons learned. It will not to apportion blame or hold anyone liable for the conflict.