The Duelfer report should have been devastating for the architects of the war – President Bush, goaded by senior neo-conservatives in the administration, and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. The ISG found ‘no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the [WMD] programme’, said Duelfer. The group suspected that Saddam intended to resurrect such schemes after having convinced the UN to lift sanctions but ‘the regime had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD after sanctions’.

The opening was narrow, but both Bush and Blair headed for it. For the US president especially, Duelfer’s timing could hardly have been worse as he prepares to face the electorate on 2 November (see Cover Story). American television viewers have been glued to their sofas in October by the season of debates between Bush and his Democratic challenger John Kerry, which have been focused on Iraq and the former regime’s alleged links with Al-Qaeda. The president’s main task in the debates has been rebutting Kerry’s accusations of failure to plan for the aftermath of the invasion, but his immediate response to the Duelfer report was more combative. ‘We had [after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks] to take a hard look at every place where terrorists might get those weapons, and one regime stood out,’ he said on the campaign train in Pennsylvania. ‘The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.’

Blair was also forced to defend himself in the wake of the report, and the admission of Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary Jack Straw that the infamous claim that Iraq could deploy chemical weapons within 45 minutes was false – or, in politician-speak, ‘I do accept that some of the information on which we based our judgement was wrong.’ Blair adopted his well-worn approach, combining contrition with determination that his decision to go to war was well founded. ‘I take full responsibility, and indeed apologise, for any information given in good faith that has subsequently turned out to be wrong,’ he told parliament on 13 October.

Blair is under particular pressure because of the murder in Iraq by his captors – thought to be linked to Jordanian Al-Qaeda militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – of the British engineer Kenneth Bigley in mid-October. He had been held since September and his death followed that of his two American fellow hostages. Reports suggest that Bigley briefly managed to escape before being recaptured and killed.

As global politicians argue over the causes of the war, the situation on the ground remains highly unstable. On 14 October, at least five people died in a bomb attack on the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, where the interim government is based. US strikes against Fallujah, where supporters of Al-Zarqawi are allegedly hiding, continue to be a regular occurrence.