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Top aides of George W Bush have revealed that Tony Blair did not place conditions on British support for the US mission to overthrow Saddam Hussein and rejected claims that weapons intelligence was fixed.Just how close were Tony Blair and George Bush and what assurances did the prime minister give the president about British support for the US mission to overthrow Saddam Hussein?
The Chilcot inquiry that is investigating how and why Mr Blair led the country to war is not expected to deliver its findings before the autumn. But The Sunday Telegraph can today throw remarkable fresh light on the countdown to conflict.
In a world still reeling from the Sept 2001 terror attacks on the US, the primary justification for the overthrow of Saddam were intelligence claims detailing the dangers posed by the stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons that he was said to have retained after the first Gulf war in 1991.
To bolster public opinion for the case for war, the US and Britain released increasingly alarming intelligence briefings in late-2002 and early 2003. In the British Government’s so-called September dossier, Mr Blair boldly laid out what became known as the “45-minute claim” in the foreword – that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) ready for use within 45 minutes of issuing an order.
But Mr Blair had also persuaded Mr Bush, against the wishes of hardline hawks in Washington, to work at the United Nations to push for the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq as the British prime minster also tried to build an international coalition to head off critics in his Labour party ranks.
Iraq reluctantly allowed the inspectors back in Sept 2002 under the leadership of Hans Blix. But in March 2003, even as Dr Blix said that his team needed more time to complete their work and Security Council members France and Russia said they would veto any UN resolution authorising military action, the US and Britain finalised preparations to oust Saddam by force.
So what was the story behind the march to war? There were reports last week that the Chilcot inquiry will challenge the official version of events leading up to the invasion and the team is understood to have had access to key secret communications between Mr Blair and Mr Bush.
Those documents remain classified, at the insistence of officials in Downing Street and Washington, on grounds of national security.
But over recent months, The Sunday Telegraph has spoken to high-ranking insiders in the Bush administration. They provided unprecedented insight on the decisions that took the world to war – and an uncompromising defence of them.
The most pressing question for many in Britain has long been when Mr Blair committed to deploy British troops to support any US-led military operation and whether he attached any conditions to that pledge.
Pivotal to resolving this enduring is the one-to-one time that Mr Blair spent with Mr Bush during a two night stay at the president’s 1,600-acre ranch in Texas, Crawford, in early April 2002, nearly 12 months before the eventual invasion.
A subsequent Cabinet Office memo recorded that Mr Blair said he would support military action “provided that certain conditions were met” -including building an international coalition and public opinion, pursuing the Middle East peace process and exhausting options to eliminate Iraqi WMD through the UN.
But this newspaper can disclose that among the president’s closest aides, there was no impression that Mr Blair had laid down any “conditions” for British support.
Stephen Hadley, the then deputy national security adviser, was among the high-powered Bush team assembled at the so-called Western White House that weekend.
“Mr Blair said that if it came to it, then at the end of the day, he would be with us if we had to move militarily against Saddam Hussein,” he said in an interview in the Washington offices of the international consulting firm that he set up with Condoleezza Rice, whom he succeeded in 2005 as national security adviser.
“It was very reassuring for the president to have our closest ally with us. We appreciated that it took a lot of courage for Tony Blair to say that, as Britain was not as uniformly behind the prime minister as America was behind George Bush.”
Indeed, Mr Blair concluded the visit with a robust speech at the presidential library of Mr Bush’s father. If Saddam refused to co-operate fully, regime change would follow, he insisted. His tone delighted his hosts, not least his first reference to “regime change” in Iraq – a policy that American neo-conservatives had long championed.
Then in late July, Mr Blair wrote a letter to Mr Bush making the case for pursuing Saddam via the “international route”. But the letter began with the assurance from the prime minister to Mr Bush that “whatever you decide to do, I’m with you”, according to a senior British official who saw the contents [Christopher Meyer, the British ambassador to Washington].
For the Bush camp, the message conveyed was just as at Crawford. “Mr Blair was saying to the President: ‘I will see this through with you’, to a diplomatic resolution hopefully, to a military resolution if that is required,” said Mr Hadley. “‘I am with you to see this through to the end’, that is how we read the British position.”
A second crucial question is why so many governments and intelligence services, even those of countries such as Germany and Egypt which did not support military action, believed that Saddam possessed WMD. Or was the intelligence knowingly fixed and hyped, as foes of the invasion claimed in criticism that later coalesced around the mantras of “Bush lied, people died” and “Tony Blair, war criminal”?
Some former CIA officials have claimed that intelligence indicating that Saddam had actually disposed of his WMD arsenal was deliberately ignored by the administration. But among the president’s confidants, that charge is brusquely rejected.
“All Saddam had to do was account for the missing weapons, but he wouldn’t do it,” said Andrew Card, then White House chief of staff. “He could have ended this at any stage, but he would not be honest.”
Mr Hadley also said that it was Saddam’s own subterfuge, fuelled by his desire to mislead his enemies in Tehran, that ultimately drove the invasion.
“What none of us thought – and this was a failure of imagination, not a failure of intelligence — was that he had had WMD and did destroy them, but that he didn’t want to tell the world as he was afraid that his arch-enemy Iran would take advantage of it,” he said. “That was our miscalculation. “
John Bolton, a lightning rod for liberal flak in his the role as the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, was just as adamant. “There was no doubt in anybody’s minds that Saddam had these weapons,” he said. “It was not just the US saying this. It was the intelligence services of many countries.”
And if they had known that Saddam did not possess WMD? Their critics, of course, insist that they knew that all along, but the leading proponents of war contend that it was time to topple Saddam. UN containment sanctions were under pressure and he would have rebuilt his arsenal if they crumbled.
As under-secretary of defence for policy, Doug Feith was often portrayed as chief ideologue at the Pentagon. “You have to understand how 9/11 changed thinking in America,” he said. “We did not say that Saddam was responsible for 9/11, but we did know that he had links to some to al Qaeda operatives, that he was a state supporter of terror
“He applauded the 9/11 attacks, he had deployed WMD against his own people and would not account for the WMD that he had had had.”
Ari Fleischer, who as Mr Bush’s spokesman was the face of the Administration and announced to the world that the “shock and awe” air operation had begun on March 20, 2003, has a different take.
“I don’t believe that George Bush would have gone to war if we concluded that Saddam Hussein did not have WMD,” he said.
Mr Fleischer is also rare in expressing some regrets. “We were certain that he had WMD,” he said. “This remains one of the most painful aspects for me. Painful because we got it wrong and we were leading the world to war for a reason that turned out to be false with great consequences — not least the loss of lives and the thousands of injuries.”
Other members of Bush’s team acknowledge mistakes in how the post-war situation was handled, but feel no remorse about the decision to end Saddam’s reign. “I have no regrets that we removed Saddam, absolutely none,” said Mr Bolton. “There were many of us who believed that we should have finished him off in 1991 in the first Gulf war. It was brilliant military campaign and a huge success. I’d have no hesitation in doing it the same way again.”
These were of course not views held by many in Britain, and certainly not by many in Mr Blair’s Labour party. So did the Bush team ever doubt he would be with them?
As late as March 9, 2003 – 10 years ago yesterday – Mr Bush placed a call from the Oval office to the secure line at Chequers. The US president quickly cut to the chase. If Mr Blair needed to bail out of military action to save his government ahead of a parliamentary vote, then the president would understand.
Mr Blair’s response was just as straight-forward as he rejected the offer of an escape clause. “I’m with you,” he twice assured the President, according to confidantes of the two men.
Beginning at Crawford 11 months earlier, it was one of several key moment when Mr Blair chose to commit his country to fight alongside the US to overthrow Saddam.
“It was a very Churchillian moment,” said Mr Hadley of the Blair response. “However he’s regarded in the UK, that’s why he’s so highly regarded in the US, for that moment of political courage that we, at least, admire.”
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