I threatened to resign over Iraq, says UN ambassador

Sir Jeremy Greenstock tells inquiry he doubted the legitimacy of invasion

The Iraq war was of "questionable legitimacy" because Tony Blair failed to secure public or United Nations support for military action, Britain's former ambassador to the UN said yesterday.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock told the Iraq war inquiry that the 2003 invasion was not illegal under international law but revealed that he threatened to resign in 2002 if Britain supported it without securing at least one security council resolution.

Sir Jeremy, who played a pivotal role in the failed attempt to win a further UN mandate to directly authorise military action, said he was kept completely in the dark about Mr Blair's agreement to use military force and claimed that American politicians were "decidedly unhelpful" during his efforts to secure international support. The move was vetoed by France and Russia, leading critics to claim the subsequent invasion was illegal.

Criticising the Bush administration's approach, he said: "We began to see that there was not much energy being expended in Washington on outreach, consultation and good relationships. Even before I heard of any serious action being taken to prepare for a possible attack on Iraq, I was coming to the conclusion that the United States was missing an opportunity in general global terms."

The former ambassador disclosed that he was not asked for his opinion as the then Prime Minister formulated his controversial Iraq policy. It was not until George Bush and Mr Blair met at the US President's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002 that he realised the UK was being drawn into quite a different debate. "That discussion was not totally visible to me," he said. "I was not being politically naive but I was not being politically informed either."

Sir Jeremy believed existing UN resolutions provided "sufficient legal cover" for future action but only if Iraq was found to be in breach of its disarmament obligations. He said there were different opinions and that a "final and conclusive" verdict was never likely to be made.

But he added: "If you do something internationally that the majority of UN member states think is wrong, illegitimate or politically unjustifiable, you are taking a risk in my view.

"I regarded our participation in the military action against Iraq in March 2003 as legal but of questionable legitimacy in that it did not have the democratically observable backing of a great majority of member states or even perhaps of a majority of people inside the UK.

"There was a failure to establish legitimacy although I think we successfully established legality in the UN ... to the degree, at least, that we were never challenged in the UN or International Court of Justice for those actions."

Sir Jeremy believed war might possibly have been averted if UN weapons inspectors had been given more time in Iraq. If military action had been delayed for about six months, there would have been a better chance of securing UN support.

"It seemed to me that the option of invading Iraq in, say, October 2003 deserved much greater consideration," he said. "But the momentum for earlier action in the United States was much too strong for us to counter."

He still felt that Saddam Hussein had been concealing some illegal materials or programmes: "I still believe there is something there but it is a question of what that something is."

Although Iraq's representative at the UN told him in September 2002 that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Britain was not in a position to ascertain whether this was true.

He said the "whole saga", in terms of UK policy, was driven by the belief that Iraq had WMD and any talk from the United States of other motivations for war, such as regime change, were "unhelpful". UK policy was solely focused on disarming Iraq, he insisted. The failure to secure another UN resolution had been damaging in terms of public perceptions of the reasons for going to war.

"What we were left with by the failure of diplomacy was the US set of reasons for going to war with Iraq, not the British ones," he said.

Iraq invasion: What we've learnt

The very first 'drumbeats' of war

The idea of toppling Saddam Hussein was floated in Washington even before the attacks of September 11, 2001. "We were aware of those drumbeats from Washington," said Sir William Patey, the former head of the Foreign Office's Middle East section. But he said London refused to become involved in the discussions: "Our policy was to stay away from that end of the spectrum." After the 9/11 atrocities, Sir William asked officials to draw up options for dealing with Iraq. The list included the possibility of regime change but Britain dismissed the idea.

British backing for US

Tony Blair's government decided in 2002 it would be "a complete waste of time" to resist American plans to invade Iraq, according to Sir Christopher Meyer, who was British ambassador to Washington at the time. Equally it was "taken for granted" in the White House that Britain would join the US in its military action. He suggested Mr Blair could have "signed in blood" Britain's support during a visit to George Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002.

Saddam's weapons

The Foreign Office received intelligence 10 days before the March 2003 invasion that Iraq's chemical and biological weapons may have "remained disassembled", former senior official Sir William Ehrman revealed. There were also repeated warnings to ministers that the intelligence coming from Iraq was "sporadic and patchy". A suggestion that aluminium tubes, which can be used in nuclear weapons, had been found in Iraq was included at the last moment in the September 2002 dossier making the case for war after comments made by Dick Cheney, the former US vice-president, on television.

The war's legality

Sir William Patey said officials dismissed the idea of an invasion in 2001 because it had "no basis in law".

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's ambassador to the United Nations in 2003, said he believed the military action to be legal under international law. But he thought it would have had "questionable legitimacy" as it lacked majority backing within the UN – and among British voters. Sir Jeremy warned the Foreign Office he was ready to resign unless there was at least one fresh Security Council resolution justifying military action.

The aftermath

Sir Christopher Meyer said he warned Mr Blair of the need for more clarity on post-war planning as President Bush's aides were simply assuming it would be "all right on the night".

By Nigel Morris