Whitehall plotted to 'neutralise' leader in Iraq - 63 years ago

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Indy Politics

For the British government it was the ideal solution to the tricky problem of how to "neutralise" a ruthless Muslim autocrat called Hussein who was plotting a terror campaign from his Baghdad stronghold.

Faced with a sceptical public, Whitehall officials hatched a plan to discredit their target by pretending to have non-existent intelligence documents exposing Hussein's role in an axis of evil. The government machine would then attack the BBC when it broadcast "unhelpful" reports, including any based on what could be criticised as single, "doubtful" sources.

It might sound like a rehearsal of Tony Blair's troubles over the invasion of Iraq, but the events happened more than 60 years ago in an early "dodgy dossier" episode over a troublesome Palestinian cleric during the Second World War.

Documents released today at the National Archives in Kew, west London, reveal how the Foreign Secretary in 1940, Anthony Eden, considered secret proposals from the military and diplomats to win over Arab public opinion by falsely claiming to have documents showing that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was in the pay of Italy, one of the Axis powers.

The cleric, Haj Amin al-Hussein, had fled from British-controlled Jerusalem to the Iraqi capital, from where he was feared by the Foreign Office to be orchestrating a terrorist campaign against British troops in Palestine, who were fighting Jewish rebels.

Military chiefs and the Foreign Office were concerned at the cleric's popularity in the Middle East and agreed there should be a propaganda campaign against him, revealing his links with Italy from documents supposedly captured in Libya.

But concerns were raised at the potential repercussions of pretending to have stolen papers to back up intelligence gathered from other sources. Eden - faced with a dilemma similar to that which faced Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, when assessing British claims that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium from Niger - decided there was not enough proof to make the claim using false documents, whatever the strength of the proof from elsewhere. Instead, the Foreign Office decided on a "whispering campaign" against the Mufti.

In a project with distinct parallels to the offensive against Hussein's modern namesake, Whitehall decided that the propaganda against the cleric should highlight his luxurious lifestyle based on money raised from his impoverished subjects and splits within his "inner circle" over how their military campaign should be conducted.

But diplomats and commanders decided to stop short of a drastic proposal to to kidnap the Mufti and return him to Jerusalem to stand trial,

The documents also show that sensitivity in government circles about the reporting of the BBC is by no means new. In 1940 and 1941, the BBC was repeatedly attacked for its reporting of the Mufti's activities.However, unhappily for Whitehall's early spin doctors, there was no doubt as to the accuracy of the corporation's reporting.

Atom bombs did not exist ... unless they exploded

The British and American governments drew up a secret plan to minimise public panic in the event of a crash involving an aircraft carrying nuclear weapons: they ordered officials only to confirm the presence of an atomic bomb if it exploded.

The advice was drawn up by a joint committee of senior Whitehall officials and American diplomats after a spate of accidents involving US Air Force nuclear bombers at British bases in the late 1950s.

Classified Home Office papers released today show that the presence of atomic weapons at a crash site was only to be admitted in the most dire circumstances.

Civil servants met in 1959 to draw up procedures to deal with the press and the public if a nuclear bomber came down over Britain. The subsequent classified briefing ordered press officers to withhold information if they knew an unexploded atomic weapon was at the crash site.

The document said: "If a nuclear weapon is known to have been carried, any questions shall be answered on the lines that a further statement will be made by the Air Ministry as soon as the facts are known. If it is known that no nuclear weapon was involved, the sooner this is stated the better.''

The classified paper then added: "If, however, an explosion had occurred after the crash, whether of high explosives or the nuclear weapon itself, and if such an explosion caused civilian casualties, it would obviously be necessary to make a fuller statement.''

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