Page last updated at 19:54 GMT, Monday, 18 January 2010

Iraq inquiry: No deal in blood, says Jonathan Powell

Jonathan Powell: "We were signing up for going down the UN route"

Britain gave "no undertaking in blood to go to war in Iraq" in March 2002, Tony Blair's former chief of staff has told the Iraq Inquiry.

Jonathan Powell dismissed ex-diplomat Sir Christopher Meyer's claim that Mr Blair's stance had hardened after a private meeting with the US president.

He said there had been an "assumption" Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, because Saddam had used them before.

And he said they had considered that Mr Blair might lose his job over the war.

Mr Powell, who was Mr Blair's chief of staff for his 10 years in power, has been addressing the inquiry in its seventh week of hearings into the run-up, conduct and aftermath of the war in Iraq.

UK-US 'gulf'

He said Iraq had not been a big issue in the US when British officials visited in January 2001, but the September 11 attacks "changed everything".

Mr Blair had made constant efforts to persuade the US of the need to stick with the UN route of dealing with Iraq diplomatically, he said.

And he rejected suggestions by the former British ambassador to the US, Sir Christopher Meyer, that Mr Blair's stance had hardened when he met President George W Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas in March 2002.

There was not an undertaking in blood to go to war with Iraq. There was no firm decision to go to war
Jonathan Powell
Tony Blair's ex-chief of staff

Sir Christopher had said a speech by Mr Blair the following day had mentioned regime change for the first time and he could not be sure "what degree of convergence was, if you like, signed in blood" at Crawford.

But Mr Powell said that far from supporting regime change in that speech, Mr Blair's team had been worried about the gap between the UK and US positions at the press conference.

"We were worried about how we wouldn't reveal, to public discussion, the huge gulf between us," he said.

"I was at Crawford... Christopher Meyer was not at Crawford. He was at Waco, 30 miles away," Mr Powell said.

Blair notes

"There was not an undertaking in blood to go to war with Iraq. There was no firm decision to go to war."

He also said notes from Mr Blair to Mr Bush in 2002, in which he said "Britain will be there" if Saddam Hussein could not be disarmed using diplomacy, did not commit Britain to war but were part of a process in which Mr Blair had tried to influence the Americans.

AT THE INQUIRY
Peter Biles
BBC World Affairs correspondent Peter Biles
Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Jonathan Powell, another key Whitehall insider, told the inquiry categorically that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, that Britain was wrong and the intelligence was wrong.

A far cry indeed from 2003 when Tony Blair's government firmly believed that WMD would be found in Iraq.

As the Iraq inquiry questions more witnesses, old arguments are having to be refined.

Critically, Mr Blair himself, will have to explain in his evidence on 29 January precisely why he continues to believe it was right to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

The WMD argument may have been valid seven years ago, but no longer.

As certain as Tony Blair was in 2003, it is clear there were doubts in the minds of his closest advisers.

Like Alastair Campbell last week, Jonathan Powell has expressed the view that Mr Blair could have lost his job over Iraq in the face of the huge political opposition in Britain.

Mr Powell told the inquiry "most people" believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and the September 2002 dossier on intelligence was not "such a big deal" at the time.

There was "an assumption" he had them because he had used them before and had "lied about getting rid" of them before: "So it would have taken some quite strong intelligence saying he had got rid of them to persuade us he had got rid of them."

Mr Powell said he was "absolutely amazed" when none were found when the troops went in.

He rejected suggestions that with more time, there might have been more chance to build a wider international coalition

"Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction. We were wrong. The intelligence was wrong, so no matter how long you had carried the inspections on you weren't going to find anything," he said.

He also said Mr Blair was not dismissive of the anti-war movement: "We could see the possibility of the prime minister losing his job in March [2003] as a result of this."

"I remember [then cabinet secretary] Andrew Turnbull used to regularly pop into my office in that period and ask me for the Labour Party rules on a change of prime minister - which wasn't altogether encouraging."

Meanwhile, the ballot for tickets for people to watch Mr Blair's appearance before the inquiry on Friday next week has taken place.

He will appear the day after ex-Attorney General Lord Goldsmith - the man at the centre of controversy over whether the war was lawful.

On Monday inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot said he could have stopped "the whole thing in its tracks".

But Mr Powell denied Lord Goldsmith had been bullied into authorising the war.

He said lawyers often gave a "on the one hand, on the other" opinion adding: "Sometimes they have to come down on a decision one way or the other on an issue, you can't have it both ways, and I think that is what is happening in this period."



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