Jack Straw suggested 'facilitation' days before Iraq invasion

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Indy Politics

Former foreign secretary Jack Straw today described how, just days before the invasion of Iraq, he advised Tony Blair that they need not necessarily send in British troops with the Americans.

Mr Straw told the Iraq Inquiry he had suggested that the UK could instead provide "facilitation" for the US offensive, and then deploy British forces to help deal with the aftermath.

His appearance marked the inquiry's final public hearing, 15 months after they began.

Winding up the proceedings the chairman, Sir John Chilcot, said completing their final report was a "significant task" which would take "some months".

Mr Straw confirmed that he had met Mr Blair on March 12 2003, eight days before the invasion, to discuss the situation.

No official record was kept of the meeting, but Mr Straw said he had made clear to Mr Blair that he still had options other than committing to the invasion.

"I think to say I was advocating not committing British troops to military action is probably putting it too strongly," he told the inquiry.

"We could have provided facilitation and then go in afterwards. That was the most plausible alternative which would not have meant standing down all the troops we had in theatre and was essentially what the Spanish and Italians did."

In the end he "thoroughly" endorsed the decision to invade, but added: "I don't think anybody was keen on military action - it's horrible and people are going to get killed. I was anxious that we should explore all possible alternatives.

"I also felt that as I owed the prime minister my loyalty, I also owed him the best and most robust advice I could give him."

He confirmed that the only paper given to cabinet ministers when they had their first major discussion on Iraq in March 2002 was a briefing note for Labour MPs to help them to answer questions from their constituents and local party members.

"It was a feature of the way that the prime minister ran Cabinet that most decisions were made on the basis of oral briefings, having been pre-cooked through the process of Cabinet committees," Mr Straw said.

"The Cabinet, particularly under Tony Blair, less so under Gordon Brown, was used more for the briefing of Cabinet and discussions of that kind rather than acute decisions."

While he said he favoured a more formal approach, he nevertheless defended the former prime minister's much-criticised style of "sofa government", saying it made little difference to the way events turned out.

"His style was much less formal than mine, but the fact he used soft furnishings rather than hard chairs does not make him a bad person," he said.

Mr Straw rejected claims that the government had deliberately misrepresented then French president Jacques Chirac in order to blame him for the breakdown of talks on Iraq at the United Nations in March 2003.

He said Mr Chirac had been clear during a television interview that France would veto any fresh Security Council resolution specifically authorising military action against Iraq, wrecking any chance of agreement.

"I don't think anybody watching the totality of that interview could come to any conclusion but that he was chucking a bomb into the room and seeking to disrupt the negotiations. He knew exactly what he was doing," he said.

"This was not the president popping out of the back door of the Elysee to buy a baguette, bumping into a journalist and saying something unscripted and finding it recorded in the newspapers and being surprised at the outcome."

Newly declassified papers released by the inquiry show the French had repeatedly complained at the time about the way the British had represented what Mr Chirac said, only to have their objections dismissed.

French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin telephoned Mr Straw to tell him that Mr Chirac had "never said" what the British were claiming.

Meanwhile the British ambassador in Paris, Sir John Holmes, cabled the Foreign Office to say that the Elysee Palace was "particularly upset" at the way Mr Chirac's comments had been taken "out of context".

He added: "Our position can hardly surprise the French, nor the fact that we are using Chirac's words against him when the stakes are so high - he did say them, even if he may not have meant to express quite what we have chosen to interpret."