Iraq war inquiry could reveal secrets, lies and the rush to war

When Tony Blair told the Commons that he hoped conflict with Iraq could be averted, he already knew the White House had picked 1,500 targets for its bombers. Gaby Hinsliff, Paul Harris and Jamie Doward report on the gaps between what the public were told and what politicians were discussing in private, as the government prepares for a closed inquiry

Gaby Hinsliff, Paul Harris and Jamie Doward The Observer,
Sunday 21 June 2009

The drumbeats of war were growing louder, and opposition to them louder still. But on that Monday afternoon six years ago, just off a plane from a critical Washington summit, Tony Blair insisted an invasion of Iraq was still not inevitable. "No one wants conflict... Even now, I hope that conflict with Iraq can be avoided," he told the House of Commons on 3 February 2003. "Even now, I hope that Saddam can come to his senses, co-operate fully and disarm peacefully, as the UN has demanded." Nonetheless, he admitted, if Saddam rejected that route, "he must be disarmed by force". What the MPs listening intently to him did not know, however, was that the decision had already been made.

The secret minutes of the meeting on which Blair was briefing parliament now confirm that the 1,500 bombing targets had already been chosen, the date for invasion set - and, most strikingly, dwindling prospects of a UN mandate for war were prompting some increasingly wild ideas on how to justify it.

It is precisely such gaps between the private and public versions of events that, many believe, would be exposed by an open inquiry into the Iraq war. Just as voters would never have known about the duck islands, moat-cleaning and address-flipping had they seen only the heavily censored expenses claims, Gordon Brown's critics fear a closed inquiry will also black out embarrassing truths. Today's revelations will only fuel the fire. Among those now backing a fully public inquiry is Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain's ambassador to Washington in the run-up to the war and a likely witness in any inquiry. He appears to have been copied into the Manning memo though he said yesterday he was not aware of the proposal to entice Saddam Hussein to shoot down a plane until later. However, he said it was an accurate reflection of the "pretty desperate" mood at the time. By this stage, he argues, the search for a so-called "smoking gun" on weapons of mass destruction was proving both unsuccessful and even counterproductive.

"The original genius of the Security Council resolution in November 2002 was that it charged Saddam to prove his innocence: then, by becoming obsessed with finding a smoking gun or getting him to do something loony like shoot down a drone [the plan changed]. People suddenly realised that they had to prove him guilty. The onus of proof shifted, which was a serious own goal."

Meyer argues that many documents classed as sensitive at the time should now be treated as historical records and made public. "Given everything that's been revealed, including on the other side of the Atlantic, I think that makes a lot of stuff suitable for disclosure."

The Manning paper is, of course, only one example of a confidential memo that might answer many questions. But it is particularly relevant because it covers such a critical period - days before the UN weapons inspector Hans Blix's report on the fruitless search for WMD, a fortnight before two million Britons marched against the war - and encapsulates so many of the arguments on Iraq that still divide the nation to this day.

Four days before Sir David Manning, then the prime minister's foreign policy adviser, sent that crucial memo, Blix had delivered an update to the UN Security Council. Although he was still two weeks away from his final conclusions, after two months of research his thinking was clear. While key questions over Iraq's weapons capability were "unresolved", he warned, that was not the same as concluding that Saddam had WMD. What he wanted was more time.

To governments on both sides of the Atlantic, that suggested he had not found the hard evidence needed to support a UN resolution backing military action - or at least, not in time for the March invasion for which thousands of British and American troops were already massing in the region. In that 27 January report, Blix also noted that his team had told the Iraqis they wanted to fly a U2 spy plane - the model used by the US, and mentioned by Bush at the 31 January meeting - over Iraq to assist its inquiries but had been told that the Iraqi government "would not guarantee its safety".

Allied planes already patrolling the existing no-fly zone were coming under increasing threat of being shot down. Did this give Bush his idea? For the Americans, it was clear that time was running out. Two days before the 31 January meeting, Bush used his annual State of the Union address to prepare his nation for war. "If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him," he said. It was now politically impossible for Bush to back down from a spring invasion.

That was not what Downing Street wanted to hear. Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's press secretary, notes in his published diaries for the period that Blair was "pretty clear we couldn't do without" a second UN resolution, believing the allies needed more reports from Blix and more time for Arab leaders to influence Saddam.

Blair needed the resolution to win over not only the British public, but parliament and wavering cabinet ministers such as Robin Cook and Clare Short. He was also due to face the wrath of the grassroots at Labour's spring conference in mid-February, the same weekend as the planned Stop the War march.

Against this background, the two-hour meeting on 31 January in Bush's private apartments at the White House - involving the two men and six senior officials - was critical. The British press were briefed that their prime minister would push the need for a UN mandate, for the sake of domestic and international opinion. That much is borne out by the memo, which has Blair suggesting a second resolution would provide "an insurance policy".

US journalists, meanwhile, were told the two men would discuss a timetable for war if no second resolution materialised. Behind closed doors, the memo confirms that the Americans had virtually given up on that resolution and were clutching at increasingly improbable straws, from encouraging Iraqi defections to assassination.

Past accounts from senior members of both administrations have suggested Blair exacted generous concessions from Bush at this meeting. The Manning memo seems to portray Bush as the driving force, while Blair is recorded reassuring the Americans that he was "solidly with the President and ready to do whatever it took to disarm Saddam".

Blair is widely thought to have tried at this meeting to get the invasion delayed until April. But the memo reveals there was little chance of that; military planning was so advanced that Bush told him 1,500 targets for bombing had been selected. The date was set for 10 March. Perhaps understandably, the body language of the two men at the subsequent press conference was tense.

One last attempt to secure a UN resolution followed, with Colin Powell, the secretary of state, appealing directly to the UN while the British released a dossier of apparently damning new evidence against the regime on the same day Blair addressed the Commons. But that quickly backfired amid revelations that most of its material was 12 years old and plagiarised from a student thesis. Was this a strategy also discussed at the January meeting?

However serious that attempt to secure UN approval had been, within less than two months of the January meeting the "shock and awe" campaign of heavy bombing was raining down over Baghdad. Blair's premiership never quite recovered. Many of his friends still believe Gordon Brown at best failed to defend him over Iraq and at worst exploited the subsequent collapse in Blair's popularity to push him to quit.

The prime minister was ultimately saved by the publication of the Hutton inquiry in January 2004, in effect clearing him of the most serious charges over Iraq. But some Blairites still believe that without Iraq, Blair might have fought a fourth election as Labour leader - or at least stayed long enough to ensure that his protege David Miliband leapfrogged Brown into Downing Street. This is what makes it so ironic that it is now for Brown to decide how much embarrassment the Chilcot inquiry inflicts on his predecessor.

Viewed from the White House, the furore may seem odd. Barack Obama's administration is untainted by Iraq; it has little to fear and may even benefit from an inquiry exploring a previous Republican administration's murkiest hours. By contrast, Brown sat in Blair's war cabinet, a little too close for comfort.

America has already held an exhaustive inquiry, sifting through thousands of pages of sensitive evidence; the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has even touched, during evidence on relations with Iran, on how shooting down a UN plane could become a pretext to war.

Nonetheless, national security issues remain sensitive, and Obama has acted conservatively on issues such as releasing confidential photographs from Abu Ghraib and the prosecution of military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay. His relations with Bush have also been cordial. Fresh raking over of America's painful war may not be ideal. But Meyer argues there should be little to disturb the new regime: "George Bush has already put a lot of stuff out there himself." Both Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, are penning their own memoirs. ... y-politics