British Prime Minister Tony Blair told US President George W. Bush that he was "solidly" behind US plans to invade Iraq before he sought advice about the invasion's legality and despite the absence of a second UN resolution, according to a new account of the buildup to the war published yesterday.
A memo of a two-hour meeting between the two leaders at the White House on Jan. 31, 2003 -- nearly two months before the invasion -- reveals that Bush made it clear the US intended to invade whether or not there was a second UN resolution and even if UN inspectors found no evidence of a banned Iraqi weapons program.
"The diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning," the president told Blair. The prime minister is said to have raised no objection. He is quoted as saying he was "solidly with the president and ready to do whatever it took to disarm [former Iraqi president] Saddam."
The disclosures come in a new edition of Lawless World, by Phillipe Sands, a leading lawyer and professor of international law at University College, London.
Sands last year exposed the doubts shared by UK Foreign Office lawyers about the legality of the invasion in disclosures which eventually forced the prime minister to publish the full legal advice given to him by the UK attorney general, Lord Goldsmith.
The memo seen by Sands reveals that Bush told Blair that the US was so worried about the failure to find hard evidence against Saddam that it thought of "flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft planes with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colors." Bush added that "If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach [of UN resolutions]."
The memo also shows that Bush even expressed the hope that a defector would be extracted from Iraq and give a "public presentation about Saddam's WMD." He is also said to have referred Blair to a "small possibility" that Saddam would be "assassinated."
In response, Blair is said to have told the US president that a second UN resolution would be an "insurance policy," providing "international cover, including with the Arabs" if anything went wrong with the military campaign, or if Saddam increased the stakes by burning oil wells, killing children, or fomenting internal divisions within Iraq.
Bush then told the prime minister that he "thought it unlikely that there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups." Blair did not demur, according to the book.
The revelation that Blair had supported the US president's plans to go to war with Iraq even in the absence of a second UN resolution contrasts with the assurances the prime minister gave parliament shortly after. On Feb. 23, 2003 -- three weeks after his trip to Washington -- Blair told the British House of Commons that the UK government was giving "Saddam one further, final chance to disarm voluntarily."
He added: "Even now, today, we are offering Saddam the prospect of voluntary disarmament through the UN. I detest his regime -- I hope most people do -- but even now, he could save it by complying with the UN's demand. Even now, we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully."
On March 18, before the crucial vote on the war, he told members of parliament: "The UN should be the focus both of diplomacy and of action ... [and that not to take military action] would do more damage in the long term to the UN than any other single course that we could pursue."
The meeting between Bush and Blair, attended by six close aides, came at a time of growing concern about the failure of any hard intelligence to back up claims that Saddam was producing weapons of mass destruction in breach of UN disarmament obligations. It took place a few days before the then US secretary Colin Powell made claims -- since discredited -- in a dramatic presentation at the UN about Iraq's weapons program.
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