Blair quick to follow US lead on Iraq

By Michael Savage

LONDON - Tony Blair ordered Army chiefs to draw up war plans for Iraq nine months before the invasion took place, one of his key aides has revealed.

The former Prime Minister began planning the offensive two months after a secretive meeting with President George W. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, during which he was warned that the United States had already started preparing for military action to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Sir David Manning, who at the time was Blair's foreign policy adviser, told the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war that Bush and Blair had also:

discussed Iraq just three days after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks

and the US did not need British assistance to carry out the invasion in March 2003.

Blair's words on regime change in Iraq were "notably tough" after the Crawford meeting in April 2002.

During the trip Bush revealed that a secret "cell" had been set up within the US Central Command in Florida to work on a strategy to topple the regime in Baghdad, though no decisions had been taken.

Manning said it was this revelation that prompted Blair to order the Ministry of Defence to come up with similar plans in June of that year. Weeks later, the then British Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, presented Blair with three possible military options.

The first, an "in-place support package", would make use of British troops already in the area.

The second option added marine and aircraft support, with the addition of some special forces. A third, known as the "discrete option", involved a 20,000-strong deployment of British troops that would take six months to prepare.

Manning said that Blair wanted to keep the plans secret because he was still determined to encourage the US to deal with Iraq through the United Nations.

However, as early as October 2002 there was an acceptance in London that Britain would offer the third option to the US.

"Clearly during October there was further discussion between the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary about this and I think as time passed there was an acceptance that if it came to military action, that we probably would be willing to move to package three."

Blair's commitment to back the invasion was "enormously desirable" to Bush. "[It] was not seen as essential. Do I think the [US] could not have done this without our military participation? My answer would have to be no, I'm sure [it] could have done."

He also revealed that during a telephone call on September 14, 2001, Bush disclosed that he thought there could be a link between the Iraqi leader and al Qaeda.

Blair's response was that the evidence would have to be "very compelling indeed to justify" a policy of regime change, he added.

Manning said that he believed that UN weapons inspectors were not given enough time to carry out their work and also admitted major failings in post-war planning.

"I think the assumption that the Americans would have a coherent plan which would be implemented after the war was obviously proved to be unfounded. The American military thought that they were fighting a war and when that war was over they were expecting to go home and they were not in the mode of peacekeeping or policing."

INQUIRY WITNESSES

TODAY:
* Edward Chaplin, Ambassador to Jordan 2000-02. Director Middle East and North Africa (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), 2002-04.
* Sir Peter Ricketts, chairman of Joint Intelligence Committee, 2000-01. Director-general political (FCO), 2001-03.

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