Hans Blix, the UN's chief weapons inspector, chose a good phrase for a public addicted to sound–bites when he declared in New York on Thursday that he had found “no smoking guns” in Iraq. More substantively, he indicated that he did not regard his planned report to the Security Council on January 27 as representing a “deadline” by which a decision about the necessity of military action against Iraq has to be taken. It now seems likely that Mr Blix will ask for more time to pursue his inspections – perhaps months rather than weeks.

This would not please the US administration which does not think much of the work being done by the UN inspectors and anyway wants an early decision about the use of military force because of the difficulty of operating on the ground in Iraq as the summer draws near. President Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said: “The problem with guns that are hidden is that you can't see their smoke. We know for a fact there are weapons there.” To which Mr Blix's reply would presumably be: “Tell us where and we'll look for them.” The reluctance of the United States and Britain to reveal, even in the most general terms, what they know of the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction is one of the more perplexing aspects of this whole business. It certainly undermines the confidence of those who want to be able to take what Mr Bush and Mr Blair on trust.