The US-led hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is making "solid progress" despite failing to find any actual biological or chemical weapons, US officials said on Thursday.
"We are making solid progress. And as is with most progress it is preliminary. We are not at the final stage of understanding fully Iraq's WMD program or having found WMD," said David Kay, who recently returned from Iraq where he was sent as a CIA special adviser to develop a strategy for finding weapons of mass destruction.
The US went to war in March saying Iraq posed an imminent threat because it possessed weapons of mass destruction, but no such weapons have been found since former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was toppled in April.
The failure to unearth such weapons has undermined the Bush administration's credibility, critics say, but Kay called for patience.
"It's going to take time. The Iraqis had over two decades to develop these weapons and hiding them was an essential part of their program, so it is not an easy task and we are not close to a final conclusion yet," Kay, a former UN weapons inspector, told reporters after closed-door Senate hearings.
Senator Edward Kennedy, a Democrat, said in a statement: "I heard nothing today to suggest that we're any closer to finding any weapons of mass destruction. It's looking more and more like a case of mass deception. There was no imminent danger, and we should never have gone to war."
Kay said Iraqi scientists who were "collaborating and cooperating" and freshly unearthed documents have led the WMD hunting team to new, previously unknown sites in Iraq. Physical evidence has been collected, but he declined to describe it.
Kay said there could be "surprises" uncovered, but declined to describe what those might be.
"I think in view of a lot of criticism, I would not be surprised if there is a surprise that would end up changing a lot of people's minds," Roberts said.
The US teams hunting for the unconventional weapons have nevertheless found dozens of fighter jets from Iraq's air force buried beneath the sands.
At least one Cold War-era MiG-25 interceptor was found when searchers saw the tops of its twin tail fins poking up from the sands, said one Pentagon official familiar with the hunt. He said search teams have found several MiG-25s and Su-25 ground attack jets buried at al-Taqqadum air field west of Baghdad.
Iraq's air squadrons were a no-show during the war, and US military officials supposed their pilots stayed grounded because they believed they were overmatched by American and British air power.
Various officials differed in opinion as to whether the buried aircraft could ever fly again. Many of the planes were buried intact with minimal efforts to protect them from the sand.
Representative Porter Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the discovery pointed to how far Iraqi forces went to conceal their activities. The Republican was briefed on the discovery during his recent trip to Iraq.
"Our guys have found 30-something brand new aircraft buried in the sand to deny us access to them," Goss said. "These are craft we didn't know about."
He said the planes were not considered weapons of mass destruction for which coalition troops have been searching for months, "but they are weapons [Iraq] tried to hide."