Britain was involved in planning for war in Iraq for at least nine months before MPs approved military action, according to a document apparently leaked from the Pentagon.
Details from the secret briefing paper, published in London's Evening Standard, suggest that military commanders took part in a war planning conference with US counterparts as early as June 2002.
At the time, Prime Minister Tony Blair was insisting that no decisions had been taken on military action.
Today's leak, on the eve of a crucial debate on Iraq at Labour's conference in Brighton, will fuel speculation that Mr Blair agreed in principle to join the US in military action at his April 2002 summit at President George Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas - something the Prime Minister has always denied.
But Downing Street insisted today that, while planning for "a range of contingencies" in Iraq had taken place over the months before the war, the decision to join the US in combat was not taken until after the Commons vote on March 18 last year.
The document sets out a chronology of events leading from the September 11 attacks on the US in 2001 to the Iraq War and beyond.
Entitled "Operation Iraqi Freedom: Strategic Lessons Learned", it is classified "Secret/Noforn", meaning it is not to be released to foreign governments.
According to Evening Standard correspondent Andrew Gilligan, it was prepared by the Pentagon for a presentation by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in August last year.
It details a series of planning meetings and war preparations taking place before the United Nations Security Council passed its Resolution 1441 on November 8 2002, which gave Saddam Hussein a final opportunity to disarm or face "serious consequences".
Among the events recorded are:
- A planning conference between the US, UK and Australia - the three leading members of the eventual coalition in the war - on June 28 2002.
- A discussion between Britain and US commander General Tommy Franks on August 13 2002 on the possibility of sending UK forces to Turkey, on Iraq's northern border.
- A US planning order issued on October 7 2002 for operations on the "northern front" - an option which was blocked in the event by Turkey's refusal to allow coalition troops to attack Iraq from its territory.
- The publication of a full battle plan, codenamed 1003V, on October 31 2002, eight days before Resolution 1441 and a month before UN inspectors under Hans Blix began their hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
On 16 July 2002, three weeks after the planning conference, Mr Blair told MPs that there were "no decisions that have been taken about military action" in Iraq.
And a few days earlier, on July 13, the Financial Times quoted a Ministry of Defence official as saying: "We don't have current plans for an invasion or attack on Iraq in any form."
Later in the month, Mr Blair fended off questions about Iraq at his regular press conference, saying "we are all getting a bit ahead of ourselves on the issue of Iraq".
And as tensions around Iraq mounted with the publication of the September 2002 dossier on WMD, the passing of Resolution 1441 and the failed attempt to secure a second resolution specifically authorising military action, the Government continued to insist that Iraqi disarmament was the aim, not military action to remove Saddam.
Downing Street said today: "The decision to go to war was not made until March 2003, following the debate and vote in Parliament.
"Of course, there is work on a range of contingencies, but that doesn't mean that decisions have been taken."
The spokesman declined to comment on whether the leaked document was genuine.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd