Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the issue of Iraq with the U.K. hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, Britain's former ambassador told an inquiry into the Iraq war Thursday.
Christopher Meyer, who served as then-Prime Minister Tony Blair's envoy to Washington between 1997 and 2003, said he spoke with Rice on Sept. 11, 2001.
"She said there's no doubt this was an Al-Qaida operation, we are just looking to see if there could possibly be any connection with Saddam Hussein," he told the panel.
The comments are important because they suggest that the United States quickly tied the attacks with Saddam's regime. Years later, President George W. Bush's administration was forced to acknowledge that they could find no connection between Saddam and the attacks.
The inquiry, billed as the most sweeping look yet at the conflict, was in its third day of hearing public evidence. It is examining Britain's involvement in Iraq, beginning with the run-up to the 2003 invasion and concluding in July 2009, but will not establish criminal or civil liability.
Meyer said that prior to the attacks, Bush's foreign policy circle - who he said were known as "the Vulcans" - were most concerned about Russia, not Iraq.
He said that in first talks after the terrorist attacks, Blair believed there should be a "laser-like focus on al-Qaida and Afghanistan."
But Meyer said that by the time of a key meeting at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002 attitudes were hardening on Iraq. The meeting is important because war critics regard it as the moment Blair pledged backing to regime change - a year before Parliament's approved of involvement.
Bush and Blair spent a "large chunk of time" without advisers present, Meyer said.
"I'm not entirely sure to this day what degree of convergence was signed in blood" at the meeting, Meyer said, referring to Blair's acceptance that Saddam would need to be deposed by force.
Meyer said that before he won office, Bush had acknowledged his weakness on foreign policy and saw Russia and missile defense as his priorities.
Prior to Sept. 11, the issue of Iraq was "like a grumbling appendix," Meyer said.
Asked at what point war with Iraq was inevitable, Meyer told the panel: "That is a damn hard question to answer."
"What was inevitable was that the Americans were going to bust a gut to carry out the mandated policy of regime change," he said.
But until December 2002, regime change by force was not the only option. Meyer said Rice had hoped "the pressure of coercive diplomacy" would force Saddam into exile, or prompt an internal coup.
He said Britain argued that attempts to increase pressure on Iraq through the United Nations was not "limp-wristed, pitiful, European lack of will," but rather a "cunning plan to get the guy."