Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Iraq inquiry: Britain rejected regime change as illegal in 2001

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Iraq inquiry: Britain rejected regime change as illegal in 2001

British officials discussed toppling Saddam Hussein in 2001 but rejected a policy of "regime change" as illegal under international law, the Iraq war inquiry has heard.

 By James Kirkup and Gordon Rayner
Published: 4:48PM GMT 24 Nov 2009

On its opening day of public hearings, Sir John Chilcot's public inquiry into the invasion heard that British diplomats heard the "drumbeat" of war emanating from Washington even before the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The inquiry into the war, which cost 179 lives, opened yesterday with a promise from Sir John, a former Whitehall mandarin, to "get to the heart of what happened" and "not shy away" from criticising anyone who made mistakes.

The first day of the inquiry in central London was attended by several relatives of service personnel killed in Iraq. Outside, a small number of protesters gathered, several with fake blood on their hands accusing Tony Blair, the former prime minister of war crimes.

Inside, the inquiry's questioning focussed on British policy towards Iraq in 2001, the year George W Bush became US president.

Sir William Patey, head of Middle East policy at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the time, told the inquiry that he wrote a briefing paper on the options for Iraqi policy.

"We had at the end the regime-change option," he said, "We dismissed that at the time as having no basis in law."

Sir William said that the UK knew that some in the new US administration wanted to topple Saddam. "We were aware of the drum beats from Washington. Our policy was to stay away from that," he said.

The inquiry heard that in 2001, the settled view of the UK government was that attacking Iraq would have been illegal under international law.

Sir Peter Ricketts, then the political director at the FCO, told the inquiry: "We quite clearly distanced our self from regime change. It was clear that was something there would not be any legal base for."

The diplomats' evidence will focus attention on the decisions that led Mr Blair to change Britain's policy and support the military action that removed Saddam in 2003.

Sir Peter, who also chaired the Joint Intelligence Committee, said that only weeks after the September 11 attacks, US officials began to discuss "phase two of the war on terrorism," shifting their attention from Afghanistan to Iraq.

"We heard people in Washington suggesting that there might be some link between Saddam and [Osama] Bin Laden." he said. "We began to get that sort of voice early on."

Officials suggested that it was the September 11 attacks and the events that followed had ultimately shifted the British view.

In 2001, Britain and the US were committed to a policy of containing Saddam, through economic sanctions, restricting his oil sales through the oil-for-food programme, and the imposition of no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq.

The diplomats told the inquiry that the containment policy was failing in 2001, but it could have remained viable if the United Nations had agreed to new "smart sanctions" on Saddam and the return of UN weapons inspectors.

The September attacks changed that, Sir Peter said. "I think if 9/11 had not happened, we would have remained convinced that a strengthened sanctions regime, tightened, narrowed, was the right way to go and we would have continued to push to get weapons inspectors back in."

Simon Webb, the former policy chief at the Ministry of Defence, told the inquiry that the September attacks increased Britain's concerns about the possibility of terrorist groups obtained weapons of mass destruction from a regime like Saddam's.

After the attacks, he said, "the focus didn't shift to regime change, the focus shifted to

WMD. In order to order to deal with the WMD problem in Iraq, you would probably end up having to push Saddam out. That was the sequence of events. It wasn't hopping straight to regime change."

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© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2009


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