Dr David Kelly, a death that won't be buried

How reliable was the claim that Iraq could deploy a WMD 'within 45 minutes'? A British weapons expert held the key, but he was found dead shortly after the war ended.

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It was Brock, a cross-border collie working with the civilian Lowland Search Dogs Association, who found the body, shortly after 8am on July 18, 2003. Slumped against a tree, not far from his home in the Oxfordshire countryside, lay one of the most surprising victims of the West's invasion of Iraq. Dr David Kelly, a weapons inspector at the centre of media allegations that the British government had "sexed up" the dossier it used to justify the invasion, had been missing since leaving his house for a walk the previous evening. He had become an unexpected casualty of the war he had worked to prevent, but which had nevertheless begun four months earlier.

His wife Janice had called the police just after midnight. Before dawn, dozens of officers, backed by a helicopter with heat-seeking equipment, were combing the woods near the couple's home. Kelly was found with his left wrist covered with blood. Beside him on the ground were a watch and a small knife. But the supposed suicide of a man who held the key to the critical question of the aftermath of the Iraq war - how credible were the claims that Saddam had amassed an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction? - was the beginning of a mystery that for many was only deepened by an inquiry ordered by the then Labour government and conducted by Lord Hutton, a senior law lord.

The Kelly controversy took another twist this week with the news that lawyers for a US Air Force officer who had served with Kelly in Iraq had written to Britain's new attorney general to throw fresh doubt on the cause of death. Kelly, Mai Pedersen insisted, had an existing injury to his right elbow that meant he even "had difficulty cutting his own steak" with his right hand. The letter adds fresh impetus to hopes that Britain's new government might pull back the veil of secrecy thrown over Kelly's death.

Because the Hutton inquiry had no legal status, witnesses - including Tony Blair - were not questioned under oath. Its conclusion, that 59-year-old Kelly killed himself, did not ring true with those who knew him or with medical experts. Conspiracy theories abounded. Had he been assassinated by MI5, Britain's domestic secret service? Or maybe by Iraqi agents? This was hinted at in the evidence given to the inquiry by David Broucher, a diplomat and Britain's permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, who had spoken to Kelly in February 2003, to "pick his brains".

Kelly told him that he had tried to reassure the Iraqis that if they co-operated with the weapons inspectors "they had nothing to fear". "My impression was that he felt that he was in some personal difficulty or embarrassment over this, because he believed that the invasion might go ahead anyway and that somehow this put him in a morally ambiguous position ? he would be thought to have lied to some of his contacts in Iraq."

As Kelly was leaving, Mr Broucher recalled, "I said to him: what will happen if Iraq is invaded? And his reply was - which I took at the time to be a throwaway remark - he said, 'I will probably be found dead in the woods'." It was, at best, a macabre coincidence. This January, suspicions deepened when six doctors applied for access to Kelly's post mortem report and learnt that it had been sealed for 70 years - a measure normally reserved only for matters of state security.

The news was "received with some degree of incredulity", Michael Powers, a barrister and former doctor advising the six medics, told The National. "Why should it be that the medical records relating to the cause of death be embargoed for 70 years? It simply cannot be family sensitivity, given the public circumstances of his death and examination of his personality." Kelly was said to have died after swallowing painkillers and cutting the minor artery in his left wrist. Mr Powers says he and the other doctors "felt uncomfortable because the conclusion as to the cause of death seemed to be improbable ? The means by which he did it was insufficient as a cause of haemorrhage. I have never found a doctor who found it to be credible."

The ulnar artery, located under the carpal tunnel on the little finger side of the wrist, is deeper and smaller than the prominent radial "pulse" artery. Cutting it would cause loss of blood too slow to be fatal, say the doctors. The doctors, Mr Powers says, "have no political motive in resurrecting this issue ? I am in no sense a conspiracy theorist - and because you can't prove suicide doesn't mean it was murder, of course. He may have killed himself, but suicide has to be proved beyond doubt."

Mr Powers says the doctors are hopeful that the change of government in Britain will end the secrecy over Kelly's death and they have written to Dominic Grieve, the MP and new attorney general, to urge him to reopen the case. Last year, before the Conservative-Liberal coalition had removed Labour from office, Grieve said the Hutton inquiry had "never succeeded in answering or resolving some of the basic questions that arose from the case". Mr Powers says he is "not unoptimistic that we may get an inquest".

Kelly, a biologist, joined the Ministry of Defence in 1984 as head of the microbiology division at the chemical and biological defence establishment at Porton Down, Wiltshire. From 1991 he was one of the chief weapons inspectors in Iraq, working with the UN Special Commission, whose investigations were responsible for the regime admitting it had a biological warfare programme. For this work, he was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, and, at the time of his death in 2003, it seems he was being considered for a knighthood. But Kelly's life was about to unravel rapidly.

On September 24, 2002, the British government published what was to become a controversial dossier: Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction - The Assessment of the British Government was, in essence, the UK's excuse for its invasion of Iraq on March 20 the next year. Four times in the document it was claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction capable of being deployed within 45 minutes.

On May 7, 2003, six days after President Bush declared the end of "major combat operations" in Iraq, Kelly received a call from the science editor of the BBC's Newsnight programme. According to her shorthand note, later produced at the Hutton inquiry, Kelly said the "45 minutes" warning had been "a mistake to put in" the dossier. Nothing came of the conversation, but on May 22 Kelly met Andrew Gilligan, the defence correspondent of BBC Radio 4's Today programme, at a London hotel and a week later, on May 29, the programme broadcast an item by Mr Gilligan about the Iraq dossier.

"A senior official involved in preparing the Government's dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction has told this programme that the document was rewritten just before publication - to make it more exciting," said the presenter. "An assertion that some of the weapons could be activated within 45 minutes was among the claims added at a late stage ? ordered by Downing Street." Kelly would be dead in less than 50 days.

On June 3, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, an oversight committee composed of MPs, announced an inquiry into the decision to go to war in Iraq. On June 19, Mr Gilligan gave evidence; he confirmed that he had had a single source but did not name the person. Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's director of communications and strategy, denied "the story that I 'sexed up' the dossier ? the story that I 'put pressure on the intelligence agencies' [and] the story that we somehow made more of the 45-minute command and control point than the intelligence agencies thought was suitable".

On June 30, Kelly wrote to his MoD manager to say that, although he did not think he was Gilligan's source, he had met the journalist on May 22 "to privately discuss his Iraq experiences" but "definitely not to discuss the dossier". Kelly's "admission" went straight to Downing Street and on July 4 he was interviewed by the MoD. According to the minutes of that meeting, he told them that Mr Gilligan had raised the issue of the dossier and the 45 minutes, but "Kelly had commented that this did not correspond with any weapon system that he knew. Mr Gilligan had asked why he thought the claim had been included in the dossier. Kelly had said that he had assumed that it was for impact."