November 25, 2009 2:00 am

Whitehall heard 'drumbeats' of Iraq war in 2001

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Britain's official inquiry into the Iraq war opened in London yesterday with senior Whitehall officials saying they had sought to distance themselves from the "drumbeats of war" and "regime change" that started emerging from George W. Bush's administration as early as 2001.

On the first day of the inquiry, headed by Sir John Chilcot, a former civil servant, leading Whitehall staff testified that parts of the Bush administration had been determined to remove Saddam two years before the 2003 invasion.

Sir William Patey, former head of the Middle East department at the Foreign Office, told the inquiry that Britain had no plans to oust Saddam in 2001 but there had been "drumbeats" for regime change from Washington at that time.

"We were aware of those drumbeats," he said. "Our policy was to stay away from that end of the spectrum. We didn't have an explicit policy for trying to get rid of [Saddam]."

Sir Peter Ricketts, then a top intelligence official, said the UK "distanced itself" from talk of removing Saddam in early 2001 despite concerns about the threat he posed. He said it was assumed that it was not "our policy" despite growing talk in the US about such a move.

Sir Peter, now head of the diplomatic service, said there was a "clear impression" of Saddam's "continuing intention" to acquire weapons of mass destruction because he had used them in the past.

However, he said there was no one in the government in early 2001 "promoting" regime change, as it was assumed "it was not our policy that we were seeking the removal of Saddam Hussein".

Sir Peter said: "We were conscious that there were other voices in Washington, some of whom were talking about regime change.'' He cited an article written by Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, in which she warned that "nothing will change'' in Iraq until Saddam was gone.

Sir Peter said al-Qaeda's attacks on the US on September 11 2001 prompted a harder look at how to tackle Saddam. However, he insisted Britain saw no evidence of a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

Opening the inquiry, Sir John said: "We want to establish a clear understanding of the various core elements of the UK's involvement in Iraq, and how these developed over time.

"What we are committed to, and what the British general public can expect from us, is a guarantee to be thorough, impartial, objective and fair."

Tony Blair, former prime minister, sent more than 45,000 troops to topple Saddam in a war that became deeply unpopular. British combat operations officially ended in April this year, six years after the invasion, with the deaths of 179 service personnel.

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