Blair admits UK discussed early plan to topple Saddam
LONDON: Britain discussed supporting the United States to bring about a change of government in Iraq eight months before the March 2003 invasion, Tony Blair said on Sunday.
But the prime minister, facing an election on Thursday in which the divisive war could cost him votes, denied suggestions his government took an early decision to topple Saddam Hussein.
His comments came in response to a leaked memo in a newspaper that said Blair and US President George W Bush were determined to oust Iraq’s former leader as early as July 2002.
“I actually talked about regime change if it wasn’t possible to get him (Saddam) to comply with international law,” Blair said in a phone-in on British commercial radio stations. Blair confirmed he discussed removing Saddam in a July 2002 top-level government meeting after the Sunday Times printed what it said were secret minutes of that meeting.
“Of course all the time what you are thinking is what happens if we can’t do this in a peaceful way,” Blair told BBC Television, when asked about the contents of the leaked memo. “The idea we’d decided definitively for military action at that stage is wrong and disproved by the fact that several months later we went back to the United Nations to get a final resolution.
“If the UN resolution had been adhered to by Saddam then that would have been an end to it,” he added.
The leaked document gave fresh ammunition to Blair’s political opponents who accuse him of lying to the public and parliament over Iraq and of striking a pact with Bush to launch an invasion well before seeking UN backing. The prime minister built his case for war on the basis Iraq’s banned weapons were a threat and has said “regime chance” was never his aim.
Blair’s opponents seized on the memo to support their attacks on his integrity but opinion polls show Blair’s Labour party is likely to win a third term on Thursday, although its huge parliamentary majority is expected to shrink.
Case for war ‘thin’: According to the minutes, Blair spoke to his cabinet explicitly in terms of toppling Saddam.
“If the political context were right, people would support regime change,” Blair is recorded as saying. “The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work.”
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the case for war was “thin” because “Saddam was not threatening his neighbours and his WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran,” the minutes said.
Straw proposed giving Saddam an ultimatum to allow in UN weapons inspectors, provoking a confrontation that would “help with the legal justification for the use of force.”
Britain’s spy chief, Sir Richard Dearlove, fresh from a trip to Washington, had concluded that war was “inevitable” because “Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action”, and “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”. Blair ordered his chief of defence staff, Sir Michael Boyce, to present him with war plans later that week, the minutes said. reuters