AFP, SYDNEY : Prime Minister John Howard agreed to launch a new inquiry into Australia's pre-war intelligence on Iraq's banned weapons after a parliamentary committee found its spy agencies may have exaggerated the evidence.

The bipartisan committee cleared the government of “sexing up” intelligence to justify war against Iraq but recommended a review of the intelligence agencies, particularly its Office of National Assessments (ONA), which advises the prime minister.

The ONA, it said, had made a sudden and as yet unexplained change in its assessments between September 12 and 13, 2002, when it appeared “more ready to extrapolate a threatening scenario from historical experience.”

Government MP David Jull, who chaired the committee, said the changes meant the ONA “overstated” the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) compared to assessments made by another spy agency, the Defence Intelligence Organisation.

“The government's emphatic claim about the existence of Iraqi WMD reflected the views of the ONA after 13 September 2002,” he said Monday.

Jull told the national parliament Australia's intelligence agencies faced a difficult job in assessing Iraq's weapons capability, but it was now clear some of their judgments were wrong.

“Our conclusion was that the assessments of the Australian intelligence community were more moderate and cautious than those of the partner agencies in the US and the UK,” he said.

“However, despite their caution, it's possible they overstated their case.”

Howard, like US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, based his decision to join the invasion of Iraq on the claim that its president Saddam Hussein possessed and was prepared to use stockpiles of WMD.

Howard, one of the strongest backers of the US invasion of Iraq, announced immediately after the report was tabled that he would adopt the committee recommendation and set up an independent investigation chaired by an expert.

“The government has decided to adopt the recommendation of the Parliamentary Joint Committee Report dealing with intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that there should be an independent assessment of the performance of the intelligence agencies,” he said.

But his government stood by its decision to go to war against Iraq.

The report, tabled after months of hearings, recommended a review because of the absence of evidence that Iraq held any banned weapons when it was invaded by US-led forces in March 2003.

The Jull committee was appointed to investigate the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) and the ONA, which was created in 1977 as an intermediary between the country's intelligence agencies and the government.

But the committee was restricted by its limited access to intelligence reports by America and Britain, and by its early reporting date of December 3, 2003 — before chief US weapons inspector David Kay said he did not think stockpiles of WMD existed in Iraq.

It found that Howard's government had not knowingly misrepresented the threat posed by Baghdad's weapons programme before it committed 2,000 troops to the US-led invasion of Iraq.

But Jull said it concluded there was unlikely to be large stocks of WMD in pre-war Iraq — “certainly none readily deployable.”

“The government did not make the claim that Iraq's WMD were deployable in 45 minutes,” he said, referring to a controversial claim by Blair in the lead-up to the war.

“The Australian prime minister and other ministers did not use highly emotive expressions such as those used in the United States.”

Howard, who read the Jull report prior to its release, earlier strongly reaffirmed his confidence in the ONA. “I think ONA is a good organisation,” he said.