The Los Angeles Times has seen additional formerly secret British government documents that “flesh out the background to …the ‘Downing Street memo’ published in the Sunday Times of London last month, which said that top British officials were told eight months before the war began that military action was ‘seen as inevitable.’ President Bush and his main ally in the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have long maintained that they had not made up their minds to go to war at that stage.”
Despite denials from both President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair at a recent joint news conference that war planning was underway in early 2002:
The new documents indicate that top British officials believed that by March 2002, Washington was already leaning heavily toward toppling Hussein by military force. Condoleezza Rice, the current secretary of State who was then Bush’s national security advisor, was described as enthusiastic about “regime change.”
Although British officials said in the documents that they did not think Iraq’s weapons programs posed an immediate threat and that they were dubious of any claimed links between the Iraqi government and Al Qaeda, they indicated that they were willing to join in a campaign to topple Hussein as long as the plan would succeed and was handled with political and legal care.
Unlike the U.S. officials – who were “fed up with the policy of containing Iraq [and] skeptical of the U.N.” – the British officials expressed concern that deposing Hussein was illegal under international law.
“We spent a long time at dinner on Iraq,” wrote Manning, now the British ambassador to the U.S. “It is clear that Bush is grateful for your [Blair’s] support and has registered that you are getting flak. I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was different from anything in the States. And you would not budge either in your insistence that, if we pursued regime change, it must be very carefully done and produce the right result. Failure was not an option.”
The memo went on to say:
“Condi’s enthusiasm for regime change is undimmed. But there were some signs, since we last spoke, of greater awareness of the practical difficulties and political risks…. From what she said, Bush has yet to find answers to the big questions:
• How to persuade international opinion that military action against Iraq is necessary and justified;
• What value to put on the exiled Iraqi opposition;
• How to coordinate a US/allied military campaign with internal opposition (assuming there is any);
• What happens the morning after?”
Manning told Blair that given Bush’s eagerness for British backing, the prime minister would have “real influence” on the public relations strategy, on the issue of encouraging the United States to go first to the United Nations and on any U.S. military planning.
Manning said it could prove helpful if Hussein refused to allow renewed U.N. weapons inspections.
Another new leaked document is a memo from British ambassador Christopher Meyer to Prime Minister Tony Blair, covering a conversation he had with Paul Wolfowitz, a neo-conservative who was then a deputy Secretary of Defense.
Meyer said in the memo that he had told Wolfowitz that U.N. pressure and weapons inspections could be used to trip up Hussein.
“We backed regime change,” he wrote, “but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option. It would be a tough sell for us domestically, and probably tougher elsewhere in Europe.”
In a March 22, 2002, memo to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Foreign Office political director Peter Ricketts “bluntly stated that the case against Hussein was weak because the Iraqi leader was not accelerating his weapons programs and there was scant proof of links to Al Qaeda.”
“What has changed is not the pace of Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs, but our tolerance of them post-11 September,” Ricketts wrote. “Attempts to claim otherwise publicly will increase skepticism about our case…. “U.S. scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda is so far frankly unconvincing,” he said.
Because countries like Iran and North Korea were also close to developing nuclear weapons, Ricketts said, “arguing for regime change in Iraq alone ‘does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam.’ That was why the issue of weapons of mass destruction was vital, he said.”