by Chris Ames
Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon faces calls to be recalled to the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war after it emerged that he discussed Iraq with the American general who would later lead the invasion, three weeks after Tony Blair’s controversial trip to George Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch in April 2002.
General Tommy Franks, head of the US Central Command, also met senior British military figures, including Sir Michael (now Lord) Boyce, the then chief of the defence staff, and discussed plans for regime change in Iraq.
Hoon’s meeting with Franks could be as significant as Blair’s visit to Crawford in revealing the commitment given by Labour ministers a year before the war. But neither Hoon nor Boyce disclosed the meetings in their evidence to the Inquiry.
Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd told me the revelation is “very serious”. He said: “It does call for a recall in my view. Mr Hoon has clearly not been forthcoming. The truth is becoming glaringly obvious – that the UK committed itself well before the dates they said they had.”
The revelation comes in a previously secret memo describing Franks’ visit to Britain on 26 April 2002. The memo was obtained by the US-based National Security Archive under freedom of information laws and disclosed at part of its Electronic Briefing Book on the decision to go to war which was published on Friday. The Mail on Sunday has covered the story today.
The memo also contradicts the evidence of other Inquiry witnesses, who said that British collaboration with US war plans did not begin until the early summer of 2002.
It reveals that Franks was briefed on the UK’s early strategic thinking on a possible invasion of Iraq, which included “how to exploit the no fly zones” (NFZs). This appears to confirm allegations that the US and UK used attacks under the NFZs to reduce Iraqi air defences in preparation for the invasion or to provoke an Iraqi reaction that would justify war.
The Inquiry has sought to establish when Britain began to prepare for war in Iraq and has heard allegations that Blair may have “signed in blood” at the April 2002 Crawford summit.
Hoon told the Inquiry that ministers had wanted to know at the time what the US plans for Iraq were but did not have any specific information. He did not reveal that he had asked Franks this directly.
But the memo states that Franks “met with Mr. Jeoffrey Hoon (sic) at his request” at Brize Norton RAF base and that “Mr Hoon asked about US plans for Iraq”. The rest of the paragraph has been censored and it is not clear what Franks told the then defence secretary or what Hoon said about Britain’s willingness to take part in military action.
In a 2004 television interview, Franks praised Hoon for his “commitment to the value of this [Iraq] mission” and said that he “never had a doubt… that if we were called upon to go to war that the forces of the United Kingdom would be with us.”
The memo shows that Franks also held a private meeting with Boyce, followed by a series of briefings from the wider “UK Defense Staff leadership”.
This substance of Franks’ meeting with Boyce has not been disclosed. But the memo does disclose that senior British military planners told Franks that they had put together a small cell of “two- and three-star flag officers to think strategically about Iraq”.
The account of the issues being discussed makes clear that they were aimed at regime change, rather than the maintenance of the NFZs: “what courses of action are available to handle the regime, what are regime power centers, how to exploit the no fly zones, what could be done with the Iraq army?”
Franks responded that the NFZs were not efficacious in that the [integrated air defence systems] in Iraq have been reconstituted”. The discussion appears to confirm that attacks under the NFZs, were aimed at destabilising Iraq, rather than in response to specific threats against US and UK aircraft.
The NFZs were put in place after the 1991 Gulf war and justified as necessary to prevent the “humanitarian disaster” that would result if Saddam launched new attacks on his internal enemies or Kuwait.
But in 2003 Sir John Walker, a former chief of defence intelligence, told the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that in his opinion there had been a noticeable change in the pattern of targeting in relation to the NFZs in the later half of 2002. “The Iraqi air defence system was being attacked in its own right, reaction or not.” This suggested a plan to “prepare the battlefield”.
According to a leaked document, in July 2002 Hoon told a Downing Street meeting that “the US had already begun “spikes of activity” to put pressure on the regime.
In his evidence to the Inquiry, Boyce confirmed that a planning cell had been established after Blair returned from Crawford but expressly denied that British thinking had been discussed with the US. He added: “Whatever planning [the US] were doing about Iraq was not being exposed to us.”
Conservative MP and Digest supporter John Baron said: “if there is any doubt about material information not being disclosed, then Chilcot should leave no stone unturned in seeking the truth.”
Hoon told the Mail on Sunday that he did not ‘hide or disguise meetings’ from Chilcot, saying he volunteered as much information as he could recall.