ROME - US Secretary of State Colin Powell on Monday again voiced absolute certainty that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that the regime of ousted President Saddam Hussein had continued to develop them in the period leading up to the US-led war.
"There were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It wasn't a figment of anyone's imagination," he told a news conference in Rome.
"That Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, there was no doubt in my mind as I went through the intelligence... The evidence was overwhelming that they had continued to develop these programmes," he added.
The US and its Iraq allies have been pushed onto the back foot in recent days over allegations that they exaggerated and embellished intelligence reports of Saddam's suspected weapons programme in order to justify their invasion of the oil-rich country.
"There's no debate. Iraq had weapons of mass destruction," Powell said. recalling that weapons of this type were use in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
On February 5 Powell told the United Nations Security Council that Saddam's regime was doing everything to hide its weapons of mass destruction from the world.
But on Saturday Britain's Guardian newspaper alleged that Powell attended a meeting with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on the eve of his speech to the UN at which both men privately expressed doubts over public claims about Iraq's suspected illegal weapons.
The British Foreign Office immediately denied the report.
Powell referred on Monday to the resolution the UN adopted in November 2002, which said Iraq had not fully respected its international obligations to accept the destruction of any chemical and biological weapons and any ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometres.
"In the fall of 2002, in resolution 1441, every member of the UN Security Council, all 15, unanimously agreed to the resolution that started out with the proposition that Iraq was in material breach of its obligations," Powell said.
"Iraq convicted itself. Iraq did not provide the answers demanded by the international community," he added.
Referring to the period following the withdrawal of UN inspectors from Iraq in 1998, Powell said: "Iraq simply ignored the demands of the international community to allow the inspectors back in."
Seven weeks after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, no concrete proof has emerged to back up US and British claims Iraq was developing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons which served as a justification for the US-led invasion.
Powell's latest comments came during a visit to Italy as part of a US drive to build support for a new Middle East peace initiative and the reconstruction of post-war Iraq.