Anne Penketh: Saddam seen as no threat - then politicians got to work

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The Independent Online

We have had the gossipy version on the run-up to the Iraq war from Tony Blair's ambassador to Washington, Christopher Meyer, aka the "red-socked fop". We have not, sadly, been able to read the account of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former UN ambassador whose memoirs have been blocked by the Foreign Office.

But with the publication of Carne Ross's statement to the Butler committee we have an insider's view as to the state of Britain's Iraq policy before the politicians seized it by the scruff of the neck in 2002.

Mr Ross suggests that the Bush administration was not the only government which changed the intelligence and the facts to fit the policy before the Iraq invasion. Even though he left Britain's UN mission in mid-2002 he confirms that the prevailing wisdom throughout his four years as first secretary in New York was that Iraq's WMD did not represent a direct threat, and had been contained by sanctions.

But as we now know, thanks to a secret Downing Street memo dated 23 July 2002, military action was already seen as "inevitable" by Washington which wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein. "The intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy," the memo said.

The next milestone came in September 2002, when the British Government published its intelligence assessment of Iraq's WMD capability. The report accused Saddam of posing a "serious and current" threat, including to Britain, thanks to missiles with a range capable of reaching Cyprus.

But with the benefit of post-war hindsight, that dossier now looks like an embarrassment. Its key assertions, including the claim that Iraq could use WMD within 45 minutes, have been discredited, as informants who came forward with new intelligence in August and September 2002 were subsequently found to have been unreliable. But too late to halt the march to war.

In November 2002, the UN Security Council gave Iraq a "final opportunity" to come clean on its WMD. Mr Ross calls into question the Government's record on the need for a second UN resolution authorising war. The British and American ambassadors, Sir Jeremy and John Negroponte, stated publicly following the unanimous adoption of 1441 that there were no "hidden triggers" for war or "automaticity" in that resolution. They knew that it was on that basis that the French and Russians had voted in favour.

But in his report Lord Butler recognised that following adoption of 1441 "there was disagreement inside the FCO on whether a further decision of the Security Council would be needed". Yet according to Mr Ross, the clearest evidence of the illegality of the war is the fact that Britain had sought an authorising resolution and failed to get it.

He also recalls that British diplomats warned their American counterparts that regime change would cause chaos. But it is doubtful that even in their wildest dreams, they could have imagined the chaos prevailing today in Iraq.