A leading aide to the former secretary of state Colin Powell has accused Vice-President Dick Cheney of creating the climate in which prisoner abuse could flourish, and implied that he might have committed war crimes.
Lawrence Wilkerson, General Powell's chief of staff until January this year, alleged that US policy on Iraq before and after the March 2003 invasion had been hijacked by an alliance between Mr Cheney and the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld fostered by President George Bush's "detached" attitude to details of post-war planning.
He also suggested that the faulty intelligence used to justify the war had been at the least "cherry-picked" by the White House and the Pentagon.
The controversy over prisoner abuse and torture has recently flared up anew in Washington. But for Colonel Wilkerson, the problem has arisen as the result of an "alternative decision-making process," led by Mr Cheney and Mr Rumsfeld.
Mr Bush had tried to steer a middle course, whereby the Geneva Conventions would apply to "all but al-Qa'ida and al-Qa'ida look-alikes," Col Wilkerson told the BBC yesterday. That policy was defensible in legal terms, but was quickly undermined in practice.
Under Mr Cheney's protection, "the Secretary of Defence moved out to do what they wanted to do in the first place". Asked whether the Vice-President was guilty of a war crime, Col Wilkerson said it was "an interesting question". It was certainly a domestic crime "to advocate terror", and "I would suspect it is for whatever it's worth, an international crime as well".
The former State Department aide's outburst came on the eve of a major speech on Iraq by Mr Bush, in which the President is expected to set out conditions for a reduction of US troop strength in Iraq.
Mr Bush said yesterday that there would be no immediate withdrawal: "We want to win, and I don't want the troops to come home without having achieved victory." The US "has sacrificed a lot" in Iraq, including the lives of more than 2,100 of its troops. "We're not going to cut and run, we will achieve our objective," he declared.
But for Col Wilkerson, the situation has been made far worse by poor post-war planning, and the abuse of some foreign detainees, which had blotted the reputation of the US around the world.
The retired US Army colonel told the BBC that more than 70 prisoners, " and up to 90, people are now telling me", had died in what he termed "questionable circumstances". There were two sides to the debate in government: one grouped around Gen Powell insisting that the Geneva Conventions must be respected; the other around the then Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales.
President Bush had sought a compromise, but, Col Wilkerson told the Associated Press in a separate interview, he was "too aloof, too distant from the details of post-war planning", allowing lower officials to exploit this "detachment" and make the wrong decisions.
The former Powell aide also cast strong doubt on the regime's explanation for the use of faulty intelligence to justify the invasion.
Until recently, Col Wilkerson said, he had tended to accept the White House explanation that along with the intelligence services of Britain, Germany and other countries the CIA and other US agencies had simply been fooled over Iraq's presumed weapons threat. "You begin to wonder, was this intelligence spun? Was it politicised? Was it cherry-picked? I am beginning to have my concerns," Col Wilkerson said.Reuse content