Page last updated at 16:39 GMT, Thursday, 26 November 2009

Blair's view on Iraq 'tightened' after Bush meeting

Sir Christopher: 'There were clues in Blair's speech the next day'

Tony Blair's view on regime change in Iraq "tightened" after a private meeting with President Bush in 2002, the UK's former US ambassador has said.

Sir Christopher Meyer said no officials were at the Bush family ranch talks - but the next day Mr Blair mentioned regime change for the first time.

The ex-diplomat also said officials had been left "scrabbling" for evidence of WMD as US troops prepared for invasion.

He was giving evidence to the inquiry into the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Crucial meeting

Its remit is to look into UK involvement in Iraq between 2001 and 2009, with the first few weeks focusing on policy in the build-up to the 2003 US-led invasion.

On the third day of public hearings, Sir Christopher said he supported the removal of Saddam because of the threat he posed and his flouting of international law but expressed reservations about the diplomatic process leading up to the invasion.

November-December: Former top civil servants, spy chiefs, diplomats and military commanders to give evidence
January-February 2010: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and other politicians expected to appear before the panel
March 2010: Inquiry expected to adjourn ahead of the general election campaign
July-August 2010: Inquiry expected to resume
Report set to be published in late 2010 or early 2011

He attacked the UK-backed process of weapons inspections in the run-up to the war, saying officials had been forced to scramble for a "smoking gun" while US troops gathered.

"The key problem was to let the military strategy wag the diplomatic and political strategy. It should have been the other way round," he said.

Most attention during the session focused on when the former ambassador believed the decision to go to war had become inevitable.

Sir Christopher said the UK believed it was "pointless" to resist US plans for regime change in Iraq a full year before the invasion and speculated that the path to war was set at a meeting between the two leaders at President Bush's Texas ranch in April 2002.

Critics of the war maintain this was the moment that the prime minister pledged his support for toppling Saddam Hussein.

Sir Christopher said no advisers were present for much of the meeting and therefore he could not be "entirely clear what degree of convergence was, if you like, signed in blood".

'Grumbling appendix'

But he said there were "clues" in a speech given by Mr Blair the next day when he mentioned the possibility of regime change for the first time.

"When I heard that speech, I thought that this represents a tightening of the UK-US alliance and a degree of convergence on the danger that Saddam Hussein presented," he told the inquiry.

Sir Christopher, who left Washington in 2003, said Mr Blair was a "true believer in the wickedness of Saddam Hussein", his views pre-dating the election of the Bush administration.

Sir Christopher Meyer-UK Ambassador to Washington 1997-2003

Before 9/11 the US viewed Iraq as "a grumbling appendix", he said, but that policy was focused on supporting dissident groups and toughening sanctions rather than on military action.

However, he said there had been a "sea-change" in attitudes after 9/11 which the British government had been forced to react to.

He said he had received "new" instructions in March 2002 - just weeks before the meeting between Mr Blair and President Bush - from Sir David Manning, the prime minister's foreign policy's adviser, about the UK's position over Iraq.

Downing Street believed that "the fact that 9/11 had happened" meant it was "a complete waste of time" to say that the UK cannot support regime change, said Sir Christopher.

He said Sir David told Washington that although the US was "powerful enough" to go it alone in Iraq, it was much better they built an international coalition to get "friends and partners" on board.

Referring to a subsequent conversation he had with a leading US government official about Saddam Hussein, Sir Christopher added: "I didn't say just we are with you on regime change, now let's go get the bastard. We didn't do that. What we said was 'let's do it cleverly and let's do it with some skill'. That means, apart from anything else, go to the UN and get a security council resolution."

'Rumble of war'

Addressing the period immediately leading up to war, Sir Christopher said the "unforgiving timetable" for a likely invasion, in terms of military preparations, meant any other outcome was unlikely.

He described how the "rumble of war" in early 2003 effectively "short-circuited" the work of UN weapons inspectors looking for weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

What just disappeared from the calculations was the understanding that after Saddam was toppled, you're going to have to maintain law and order and guarantee the continuity of essential services.
Sir Christopher Meyer

They were left "scrabbling" around to try and find a "smoking gun" in a short period of time, he said, while the UK and US had never "recovered" from the fact that no WMD were found after the invasion.

Turning to events after the war, Sir Christopher said UK co-operation in the mission should have been contingent on a thorough post-war plan for Iraq but, instead, the UK was "taken for granted".

Describing post-war planning as a "black hole", he said UK officials had tried to engage US counterparts on the issue but Washington did not "get their act together until very late in the day".

"A significant chunk of the administration was not particularly concerned about the aftermath because they thought that it would come out alright on the night," he said.

He added: "What just disappeared from the calculations was the understanding that after Saddam was toppled, you're going to have to maintain law and order and guarantee the continuity of essential services. Otherwise you'd lose the Iraqi population very rapidly."

During the whole period, Sir Christopher said the UK failed to use its leverage sufficiently to influence Iraq policy or get benefits in return.

The Iraq inquiry, set up by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, is due to report by the end of 2010.

Mr Brown and his predecessor Tony Blair are expected to be among future witnesses.

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