Blair was warned of the perils of Iraq occupation

Tony Blair was warned by two cabinet ministers of "long-term damage" to the armed forces from the occupation of Iraq, according to previously classified documents that were released yesterday.

At the time of the March 2003 US-led invasion, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, told the then Prime Minister that the number of troops on the ground needed to be cut by two-thirds within six months in order to avoid "overstretch".

In the event, the British force in Iraq stayed for six years, with wars being fought on two fronts, as operations in Afghanistan were also under way.

The letter was the latest material produced by the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war following the publication of letters and legal advice from the then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, warning Mr Blair that it would be illegal to start military action without a fresh United Nations resolution.

Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, had said that a "long-standing convention" for such documents to be kept confidential had to be waived because the issue of the legality of the Iraq war had a "unique status". However, according to Whitehall sources, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has been behind the new openness.

In their letter, dated 19 March 2003, Mr Straw and Mr Hoon wrote to the Prime Minister: "It will be necessary to draw down our current commitment to nearer a third by no later than autumn in order to avoid long-term damage to the armed forces.

"Keeping more forces in Iraq would be outside our current defence planning assumptions. If ministers wanted us to, we would need decisions now so that we would be able to recommend what would have to give elsewhere.

"Scaling down to nearer a third will limit our contribution thereafter to a maximum of around one brigade, a two-star headquarters and possible [sic] a contribution to higher level command and control, air and maritime components and support-enablers.

"Our view is that we should probably agree now to tell the US, for planning purposes, that this is the upper limit of our contribution." Tom McKane, the Ministry of Defence's strategy director from 2002 to 2006, said Mr Straw and Mr Hoon's memo was sent amid concerns about Britain's commitment to the conflict.

He told the inquiry: "It became apparent during that period that it was expected that there would be a substantial force retained in place after the fighting had been concluded, for a period of some six months or so, which would have obliged the UK to maintain something like a divisional strength force throughout that period, drawn down to a lower force level thereafter. That in itself would have constituted a breach in the planning assumptions."

Mr McKane said it was assumed at the time that the UK's military involvement in Iraq would last two to three years, with only an army battle group-sized deployment – typically about 1,000 troops – by the end of that period.

Trevor Woolley, the MoD's financial director from 2003 to 2009, acknowledged that the armed forces were stretched by being involved in simultaneous missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said: "It was taking us quite considerably beyond the planning assumptions because the planning assumption was that one of the two medium-scale operations would not endure for more than six months." Nearly all British troops were withdrawn from Iraq by the middle of last year.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral