A "secret and personal" letter from Jack Straw, the then foreign secretary, to Tony Blair reveals damning doubts at the heart of government about Blair's plans for Iraq a year before war started.
The letter, a copy of which is published for the first time today, warned the prime minister that the case for military action in Iraq was of dubious legality and would be no guarantee of a better future for Iraq even if Saddam Hussein were removed.
It was sent 10 days before Blair met George Bush, then the US president, in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002. The document clearly implies that Blair was already planning for military action even though he continued to insist to the British public for almost another year that no decision had been made.
The letter will be a key piece of evidence at the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war when it questions Straw this week.
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The document begins in a way that now appears eerily prophetic: "The rewards from your visit to Crawford will be few ... there is at present no majority inside the PLP [parliamentary Labour party] for any military action against Iraq."
Straw said Iraq posed no greater threat to the UK than it had done previously. The letter said there was "no credible evidence" linking Iraq to Al-Qaeda and that the "threat from Iraq has not worsened as a result of 11 September".
Implying Blair was already seeking an excuse for war, it warned of two legal "elephant traps". It states "regime change per se is no justification for military action" and "the weight of legal advice here is that a fresh [UN] mandate may well be required".
The letter went on to question the very objective of military action. Straw warned Blair: "We have also to answer the big question - what will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole in this than on anything."
Straw said there was "no certainty that the replacement regime will be better" than that of Saddam Hussein.
Despite this warning a year ahead of the war, the planning by Blair and other coalition leaders for the aftermath of war was dismal. Iraq descended into bloody chaos that cost more lives than the war itself.
Straw later wrote a further secret memo in early 2003 again doubting that the case for war had been made.
The release of Straw's letter will pile further pressure on Blair ahead of the former prime minister giving evidence to the inquiry sometime between January 25 and February 5.
The issue of the war remains highly sensitive among the public. A YouGov poll for The Sunday Times this weekend shows that 52% of people believe Blair deliberately misled the country over the war. Almost one in four - 23% - think he should be tried as a war criminal.
The inquiry burst into life last week during tense questioning of Alastair Campbell. Blair's former communications director rejected evidence from Sir Christopher Meyer, former UK ambassador in Washington, that Blair agreed to regime change at the Crawford summit. Campbell claimed the agreement came later in a series of private letters to Bush.
Philippe Sands QC, an expert on the legality of the war, said: "Mr Campbell sought to persuade Chilcot that there was no early decision [on war]: the Straw letter is plainly inconsistent with Mr Campbell's narrative."
In addition, a Cabinet Office briefing paper, previously leaked to The Sunday Times, contradicts Campbell's evidence.
The briefing paper states: "When the prime minister discussed Iraq with President Bush at Crawford in April he said that the UK would support military action to bring about regime change."
The YouGov poll shows that 49% of people believe Campbell did not tell the truth about the Iraq war at the time and is still not telling the truth, while 31% think he told the truth as he saw it at the time.
Other witnesses appearing before the Chilcot inquiry next week include Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, and Geoff Hoon, the former defence secretary. Hoon is expected to be asked about his contribution to a war cabinet meeting in July 2002.
The minutes of the meeting were leaked to The Sunday Times in May 2005 and have since become widely known as "the Downing Street memo". It recorded that "military action was now seen as inevitable in Washington" and that the "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy".
The memo also refers to Hoon saying that "spikes of activity" had already begun. These were attacks on Iraqi military installations in preparation for the ground invasion. The RAF took part in them.
Additional reporting: Richard Woods
Read it in full: Jack Straw’s Iraq war letter to Tony Blair
SECRET AND PERSONAL PM/02/019 PRIME MINISTER
1. The rewards from your visit to Crawford will be few. The risks are high, both for you and for the Government. I judge that there is at present no majority inside the PLP for any military action against Iraq, (alongside a greater readiness in the PLP to surface their concerns). Colleagues know that Saddam and the Iraqi regime are bad. Making that case is easy. But we have a long way to go to convince them as to:
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(a) the scale of the threat from Iraq and why this has got worse recently:
(b) what distinguishes the Iraqi threat from that of eg Iran and North Korea so as to justify military action;
(c) the justification for any military action in terms of international law:
and (d) whether the consequence of military action really would be a compliant, law-abiding replacement government.
2. The whole exercise is made much more difficult to handle as long as conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is so acute.
THE SCALE OF THE THREAT
3. The Iraqi regime plainly poses a most serious threat to its neighbours, and therefore to international security. However, in the documents so far presented it has been hard to glean whether the threat from Iraq is so significantly differently from that of Iran and North Korea as to justify military action (see below).
WHAT IS WORSE NOW?
4. If 11 September had not happened, it is doubtful that the US would now be considering military action against Iraq. In addition, there has been no credible evidence to link Iraq with UBL and Al Qaida. Objectively, the threat from Iraq has not worsened as a result of 11 September. What has however changed is the tolerance of the international community (especially that of the US), the world having witnessed on September 11 just what determined evil people can these days perpetuate.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN IRAQ, IRAN AND NORTH KOREA
5. By linking these countries together in this "axis of evil" speech, President Bush implied an identity between them not only in terms of their threat, but also in terms of the action necessary to deal with the threat, but also in terms of the action necessary to deal with the threat. A lot of work will now need to be to de-link the three, and to show why military action against Iraq is so much more justified than against Iran and North Korea. The heart of this case - that Iraq poses a unique and present danger - rests on the facts that it:
* invaded a neighbour;
* has used WMD and would use them again;
* is in breach of nine UNSCRs.
THE POSITION IN INTERNATIONAL LAW
6. That Iraq is in flagrant breach of international legal obligations imposed on it by the UNSC provides us with the core of a strategy, and one which is based on international law. Indeed, if the argument is to be won, the whole case against Iraq and in favour (if necessary) of military action, needs to be narrated with reference to the international rule of law.
7. We also have better to sequence the explanation of what we are doing and why. Specifically, we need to concentrate in the early stages on:
* making operational the sanctions regime foreshadowed by UNSCR 1382;
* demanding the readmission of weapons inspectors, but this time to operate in a free and unfettered way (a similar formula to that which Cheney used at your joint press conference, as I recall).
8. I know there are those who say that an attack on Iraq would be justified whether or not weapons inspectors were readmitted. But I believe that a demand for the unfettered readmission of weapons inspectors in essential, in terms of public explanation, and in terms of legal sanction for any subsequent military action.
9. Legally there are two potential elephant traps:
(i) regime change per se is no justification for military action; it could form part of the method of any strategy, but not a goal. Of course, we may want credibly to assert that regime change is an essential part of the strategy by which we have to achieve our ends - that of the elimination of Iraq's WMD capacity; but the latter has to be the goal;
(ii) on whether any military action would require a fresh UNSC mandate (Desert Fox did not). The US are likely to oppose any idea of a fresh mandate. On the other side, the weight of legal advice here is that a fresh mandate may well be required. There is no doubt that a new UNSCR would transform the climate in the PLP. Whilst that (a new mandate) is very unlikely, given the US's position, a draft resolution against military action with 13 in favour (or handsitting) and two vetoes against could play very badly here.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF ANY MILITARY ACTION
10. A legal justification is a necessary but far from sufficient pre-condition for military action. We have also to answer the big question - what will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole in this than on anything. Most of the assessments from the US have assumed regime change as a means of eliminating Iraq's WMD threat. But none has satisfactorily answered how that regime change is to be secured, and how there can be any certainty that the replacement regime will be better.
11. Iraq has had no history of democracy so no-one has this habit or experience.
(JACK STRAW) Foreign and Commonwealth Office 25 March 2002