Blair told Bush he 'would not budge' in support for war

Leaked documents show a gulf between public statements on Iraq and private talks with the White House. Francis Elliott reports

19 September 2004


Tony Blair privately promised George Bush he would not budge in his support for "regime change" in Iraq more than a year before the invasion.

The Prime Minister was also told by an adviser he would have to "wrongfoot" Saddam Hussein into providing an excuse to go to war, and that Mr Bush had no answer to the question of "what happens the morning after".

An extraordinary cache of leaked documents this weekend forced Mr Blair to deny that the planning for post-invasion Iraq had been inadequate. Amid a deteriorating security situation in the country, Mr Blair blamed terrorists for trying to stop the creation of a stable and democratic Iraq. But the leak also lays bare the gulf between what Mr Blair and his aides said in public about Iraq and their private discussions with the White House.

On the eve of Mr Blair's visit to Mr Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in March 2002, for example, Mr Blair's official spokesman dismissed suggestions that he was going for a "council of war". The leaks show, however, that Sir David Manning, his foreign policy adviser, had already assured Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush's National Security Adviser, that Mr Blair was fully signed up to toppling Saddam.

In a memo to the Prime Minister dated 14 March 2002, Sir David says he told Ms Rice "you would not budge in your support for regime change". Four days later, Downing Street received a despatch from the then British ambassador to the US, Sir Christopher Meyer, detailing how he repeated the commitment to Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defence Secretary. The ambassador added that Mr Blair would need a "cover" for any military action. "I then went through the need to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors and the UN Security Council resolutions."

Taken with the Joint Intelligence Committee's warning at the same time that intelligence on Iraqi WMD was "sporadic and patchy", the account appears to prove the charge that Mr Blair's use of the issue was purely tactical.

The question of Iraqi WMD comes back sharply into focus next week with the final report of the Iraq Survey Group. An early draft of the report said to be circulating in Washington concludes that the regime was working on only small amounts of biological and chemical agents probably for use in assassinations.

Equally embarrassing are leaked documents showing that Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, repeatedly warned Mr Blair that the US was failing to answer the "big questions" about what would happen after Saddam was overthrown.

On 25 March 2002, in a private note to the Prime Minister, Mr Straw detailed the difficulties he faced in winning over his own MPs and the public. "What will this action achieve?" he asked. "There seems a larger hole in this than anything." The US, he said, had failed to answer the question of how "there can be any certainty that the replacement regime will be any better".

A recent briefing paper marked "Secret UK eyes only", and also leaked this weekend, warned that Iraq could "revert to type", with "coup succeeding coup" if Saddam was replaced with another Sunni "strongman".

Mr Blair's political opponents claim he acted in bad faith. Calling the documents "the crown jewels", Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said they were "devastating". He said regime change was illegal, even though there were brutal dictators in the world.

Mr Blair said yesterday that Mr Straw's minute did not warn of chaos that would ensue in Iraq. "What it warned of was this: it's very important that we don't replace one dictator, Saddam Hussein, with another. I totally agree with that."