Iraq Inquiry: Blair Told Bush He Was Willing to Join, 11 Months Before War

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The Guardian/UK

Iraq Inquiry: Blair Told Bush He Was Willing to Join, 11 Months Before War

Adviser tells of crucial moment at Texas ranch • Chilcot panel attacked for failure to press questions

by
Richard Norton-Taylor

A demonstrator burns a mask of Tony Blair outside the Chilcot Iraq inquiry. (Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Tony Blair
made it clear to George Bush at a meeting in Texas 11 months before the
Iraq invasion that he would be prepared to join the US in toppling
Saddam Hussein, the inquiry into the war was told today.

The
prime minister repeatedly told the US president that British policy was
to back United Nations attempts to seek Iraq's disarmament, Sir David
Manning, his foreign policy adviser, told the inquiry.

However,
Blair was "absolutely prepared to say he was willing to contemplate
regime change if [UN-backed measures] did not work", Manning said. If
it proved impossible to pursue the UN route, then Blair would be
"willing to use force", Manning emphasised.

Manning recalled the
meeting between the two leaders at Crawford, Bush's Texas ranch, in
April 2002. "I look back at Crawford as the moment that he [Blair] was
saying, yes, there is a route through this that is an international,
peaceful one and it is through the UN, but if it doesn't work, we will
be willing to undertake regime change," Manning said.

The issue
is crucial because Blair was warned at the time by Lord Goldsmith, the
attorney general, and other legal advisers that going to war with
regime change as the objective was unlawful and breached the UN charter.

Manning
was not questioned by the Chilcot inquiry about a previously leaked
document in which Manning told Blair a month earlier that he had
underlined Britain's position to Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national
security adviser. "I said you [Blair] would not budge in your support
for regime change but you had to manage a press, a parliament, and a
public opinion which is very different than anything in the States,"
Manning wrote.

Also in March 2002, Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy
defence secretary, was the guest at a lunch with the British
ambassador, Sir Christopher Meyer. Afterwards, Meyer composed a private
letter to Manning. "I ... went through the need to wrongfoot Saddam on
the inspectors and the UN security council resolutions and the critical
importance of the Middle East peace plan. If all this could be
accomplished skilfully, we were fairly confident that a number of
countries could come on board," he wrote.

These documents have
been handed to the inquiry, but the failure of the panel to raise them
with Manning was sharply criticised by Philippe Sands, professor of
international law at University College London. "I was pretty shocked
by the questioning," Sands said. "I was very surprised and disappointed
by the failure to press Manning on any issues".

A picture emerged
during Manning's evidence of Blair resisting US pressure which began
when the issue of Iraq arose in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11
attacks on America at the end of a telephone conversation between Bush
and Blair. "He [Bush] said that he thought there might be evidence that
there was some connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden
and al-Qaida," Manning said.

"The prime minister's response to
this was that the evidence would have to be very compelling indeed to
justify taking any action against Iraq."

By the time he visited Crawford in April 2002, the British were "very conscious that Iraq would be on the agenda".

Manning
added: "[Bush] told us that there was no war plan for Iraq but he had
set up a small cell at central command in Florida to do some planning
and to think through the various options."

Blair first asked
defence chiefs about the British military options for action in June
2002, the inquiry heard. Yet he delayed taking decisions until later in
the year. Defence officials have said the delay was the result of
Blair's concern not to give the impression that he had given up on the
UN diplomatic route.

"I think there was some uneasiness in the
MoD about the lateness of the decisions," Manning told the inquiry. "I
personally believed [UN weapons] inspectors should have been given more
time to work." They left Iraq when it was clear that the US, with
British backing, was about to invade Iraq even though there was no hard
evidence, despite intelligence claims, that the Iraqi leader had
pursued a banned weapons programme.

One official document
understood to be passed to the inquiry refers to a meeting between
Blair and Bush at the White House on 31 January 2003. Blair is believed
to have told the president that a fresh UN resolution Britain was
pressing for was an insurance policy to provide international cover in
the event of a disaster in Iraq in the aftermath of an invasion. Bush
told Blair that he did not believe there would be any fighting between
Iraq's different ethnic groups.

That document was not raised by
the inquiry team today. However, Manning was extremely critical of the
lack of planning for post-war Iraq in the US where responsibility
passed late in the day from the State Department to the Pentagon.

Today's key moments

Key quote

"I
was very struck by the reluctance of the US soldiers to get out of
their tanks, take off their helmets and start trying to mix with the
local communities," Sir David Manning said about post-invasion Baghdad.

Key jargon

De-Ba'athification.
That means sacking Ba'ath party members from state jobs, something that
happened when Paul Bremer took control in Baghdad after the war.
Manning was very critical of the impact of this.

Damage rating

Manning was fairly scathing about the way the Americans planned, or rather did not plan, for postwar Iraq.

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