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UK Politics

Top diplomat attacks Blair's Iraq decision

Tony Blair's backing for the US-led invasion of Iraq was attacked by one of his most senior diplomats today, who said that Margaret Thatcher would have been better at handling the decision.

Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to the United States, said that the former Tory leader would have insisted on a more coherent strategy and would not have allowed such a failure in post-war planning to take place. He added that Britain gained nothing in return from its closeness to the White House under Mr Blair, who should have been firmer in his dealings with President Bush.

On the third day of Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into the Iraq war, Sir Christopher revealed that it was “taken for granted” in the US that Britain would join the US in its military action against Saddam Hussein. He said he warned Mr Blair about a need for more clarity on post-war planning, as senior aides to President Bush were simply assuming it would be “alright on the night”.

He suggested that Mr Blair may have made a secret pact with President Bush to back military action during his visit to his Texas ranch in the Spring of 2002. “They weren’t there to talk about containment or sharpening sanctions,” he said. Mr Blair followed up the trip by making speech discussing regime change in Iraq.

Insisting he was not making a “party political point”, Sir Christopher said he had asked himself “what would Margaret Thatcher have done” in handling Britain’s relationship with the US. “I think she would have insisted on a clear, coherent diplomatic strategy and I think she would have demanded the greatest clarity about what the heck will happen if and when we remove Saddam Hussein,” he said.

The inquiry also heard that the US administration was already looking towards Iraq on the day of the 9/11 terror attacks on New York. During a telephone call on that day, US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, said officials were looking into Saddam Hussein’s involvement.

Troops would be ‘greeted with cheers’

Big hitters within President Bush’s top team remained completely unconcerned about planning for what to do after the fall of Saddam, Sir Christopher said. He recalled that at one Washington dinner, Dick Cheney, the vice president, reassured him that US and British troops would be “greeted with cheers and flowers” as they reached Baghdad.

“What just disappeared from the calculations was the understanding that after Saddam was toppled, we were going to have to maintain law and order, and guarantee the continuation of the central services,” he said.

He suggested that Mr Blair may have agreed to back military action during a secretive meeting with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. “There was a large chunk of that time when no adviser was there,” he said. “To this day I am not entirely clear what degree of convergence was, if you like, signed in blood at the Crawford ranch.”

In his speech following the meeting, Mr Blair attempted to “draw lessons” from 9/11 and the handling of Iraq, which Sir Christopher said “led— I think not inadvertently but deliberately — to a conflation of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.” He added: “To the best of my knowledge … this was the first time that Tony Blair had said in public regime change.

“When I heard that speech, I thought that this represents a tightening of the UK/US alliance and a degree of convergence on the danger Saddam Hussein presented.”

Determination to invade

By the end of 2002, the US had become determined to use military action, Sir Christopher stated, meaning that plans for an invasion began to “wag the political and diplomatic strategy”. The military timetable, which planned an invasion for March, meant that weapons inspectors, led by Hans Blix, were under huge pressure to prove that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. However, they were unable to find any in the time available.

“It was impossible to see how Blix could bring the inspection process to a conclusion, for better or worse, by March,” Sir Christopher said. “Because you cannot synchronise the [military and diplomatic] programmes, you had to short-circuit the process by finding the notorious ‘smoking gun’. We have got to try to prove that [Saddam] is guilty and we - the British and Americans - have never recovered from that because, of course, there was no smoking gun.”

Senior figures had indicated to him that military action could have been put off until the end of 2003, giving the inspectors more time. But in the end, the US pushed ahead with a March invasion. “If we had planned for military action in the cool autumnal season of 2003 rather than the cool spring season of 2003, a lot of things might have been able to have been unwound,” he said.