George Bush asked for Tony Blair's backing to remove Saddam Hussein from power just nine days after the 11 September attacks, over a private dinner at the White House, a US magazine reported last night.
Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to Washington, was at the dinner table as Mr Blair replied that he would rather concentrate on ousting the Taliban and restoring peace in Afghanistan.
In a 25,000-word article in this month's American edition of Vanity Fair, Sir Christopher recounts Mr Bush as responding: "I agree with you Tony. We must deal with this first. But when we have dealt with Afghanistan, we must come back to Iraq." Mr Blair, Sir Christopher writes, "said nothing to demur" at the prospect.
Sir Christopher's account presents a new challenge to Mr Blair's assertion that no decision was taken on the invasion of Iraq until just days before operations began, in March 2003. It implies regime change in Iraq was US policy immediately after 11 September.
Sir Christopher's article comes as the new head of British and American arms inspectors in Iraq is under fire for refusing to acknowledge that the program has all but ground to a halt.
After his first progress report to the US Congress last week, Charles Duelfer, the head of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), was accused of stalling until the presidential election in November is out of the way.
"One ISG member told me that, since last year, the inspectors have been kept in Iraq to save political face rather than to find weapons," said Dr Glen Rangwala, a Cambridge University expert on the WMD issue.
Mr Blair and Mr Bush have all but admitted that the WMD claims which were used to justify war in Iraq were exaggerated or wrong, and have launched inquiries to determine whether there were failures by their intelligence services. The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, admitted last week that the "most dramatic" claim in his speech to the UN Security Council weeks before the war that Iraq had mobile biological laboratories appeared to have been based on faulty information.
One of the main reasons the US and Britain have been forced to climb down was the stark announcement by Mr Duelfer's predecessor, David Kay, who quit in December, that there were no illicit weapons to be found. But in his little-noticed progress report, Mr Duelfer ignored the views of Mr Kay, stating that "the ISG continues to look for weapons of mass destruction". He stressed that the WMD search was difficult and time-consuming.
"We regularly receive reports, some quite intriguing and credible, about concealed caches [of weapons]," Mr Duelfer insisted.
Dr Rangwala, who has visited Iraq to study the ISG's work, called the report misleading. "Shortly before he quit, Mr Kay cut back site visits," he said. "The inspectors have virtually given up looking for WMD."
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd