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BBC Two10 Days to war
Last Updated: Thursday, 13 March 2008, 12:27 GMT
10 Days to War plan
Mark Urban
Mark Urban
Diplomatic Editor, BBC Newsnight

British troops in Kuwait before the war
British troops awaited orders in Kuwait in the days before the war
When there is a big war in the offing, editors normally demand "troop build up" or "war plan" packages from their resident experts.

Sometimes I'm uncomfortable about doing such stories because I think they can smack of the over excited treatment of war (rightly) lampooned on the BBC comedy The Day Today, and also because I feel too many references to troop movements before a decision to go to war has been definitively taken are simply serving the purpose of those want those images to increase the psychological pressure on their adversary.

By the 13th March, I was finally ready to come down from my mountain and put together the most detailed possible picture I could of the Coalition's war plan.

It was clear to me from contacts that whatever the talk of 'the second UN resolution', that Washington had resolved upon force.

Official silence

The facts contained in this report had been pieced together during the preceding days by consulting a variety of sources: personal contacts in the armed forces; some retired senior officers in the United States who had agreed to help; open source reports for example on military websites or press reporting; talking by phone to BBC correspondents in various places; and lastly (and of least importance) some official spokesmen.

To be clear, very little of the content came from any sort of government briefing - an official silence that was in marked contrast to the run up to the 1991 Gulf War.

Mark Urban

Although we now know that the US planned for a conflict of up to 100 days, my sources, particularly the American ones, stressed the boldness and aggression that would characterise the 2003 campaign.

The emphasis in my presentation was therefore on an air phase of, "just a day or two" before tanks rolled in, and a war that might take, "as little as two weeks" to overthrow Saddam.

Explicit connection

The detail of the thrusts, and even of the pause of a day or two near Kerbala were all proven correct by subsequent events.

My description of the plan to break into Baghdad was, correct at the time, but commanders decided after the war started to drive tanks into the Iraqi capital in 'Thunder Run' raids.

My intelligence contacts had led me to believe, as I stated quite baldly, that the Iraqis were, "incapable of conventional military resistance". The theme of Iraq's failure to prepare for war loomed large in a Newsnight presentation I did on the 19th March too.

The British government's Iraq WMD dossier
I believed that Iraq still possessed some chemical shells and bombs, but was sceptical about biological weapons.
After the invasion I wondered whether I should have made an explicit connection with the poor state of Iraq's defences and the lack of credibility of some of the Coalition's claims that Iraq was a threat to the region.

Generally my style is to unearth the facts - in this case that Iraq could not resist the invasion - and let those on both sides of the argument make what they will of them.

I don't like to spoon feed or spin in other words - but in this case a quip, about along the lines of "so much for the threat to the region" could have been better.

Regret

The suggestion that Saddam "might" use biological weapons troubles me more in hindsight, because during the recording I dropped the phrase, "if he has them" from my script in order to save a second.

I believed (in common, for example, with Robin Cook who stated it in his resignation speech on 18th March) that Iraq still possessed some chemical shells and bombs, but was sceptical about biological weapons.

In order to save a few words, I did not express my doubt. The "might" was felt to cover it. Seconds were clawed back subbing down the script on the day, as we do constantly in our business, but I regret at my leisure.

British Tornado during 1991 Gulf War
The government briefed reporters far more before the 1991 Gulf War
In stating that Iraq's other main option was for, "guerrilla resistance, particularly in the built up areas", we were once again on much more prescient ground.

After the invasion started, I also alluded on Radio 4's World at One, to the possibility that Iraq could become a destination for global jihadists.

The nature of post-invasion resistance was therefore foreseeable, and indeed, foreseen.

Critical

I have seen opponents of the war argue that journalists should have been more critical of the way the US and UK made the case for war.

This was not really our job, rather we can be expected to puncture official pronouncements when they lack credibility.

I could - and did - state that much of the Coalition's intelligence was thin, that the Iraqis were incapable of conventional military resistance and that they could revert to guerrilla war.

So, we can serve this stuff up but we cannot determine the way our audience processes our reporting.




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