Why did the government argue for and proceed to war before the UN inspectors had established whether Iraq had wmd?

“When the Prime Minister discussed Iraq with President Bush at Crawford in April he said that the UK would support military action to bring about regime change, provided that … the options for action to eliminate Iraq’s WMD through the UN weapons inspectors had been exhausted.”
Cabinet Office Paper on “Iraq: Conditions for Military Action July 2002”

“It is obvious that, while the numerous initiatives, which are now taken by the Iraqi side with a view to resolving some long-standing open disarmament issues, can be seen as “active”, or even “proactive”, these initiatives 3-4 months into the new resolution cannot be said to constitute “immediate” cooperation.  Nor do they necessarily cover all areas of relevance.  They are nevertheless welcome and UNMOVIC is responding to them in the hope of solving presently unresolved disarmament issues.”
Hans Blix to the Security Council 7 March 2003

UN inspectors returned to Iraq in November 2002, shortly after the passage of UNSCR 1441, which was co-sponsored by the US and UK. They did not find significant evidence of weapons of mass destruction (wmd) and were not seriously obstructed. In spite of this, the UK government began to argue that Iraq was in breach of its obligations and sought a new resolution that would explicitly authorise military action. No such resolution was obtained but an invasion was nevertheless launched in March 2003.

This is one of the most controversial issues about British involvement in the war. The two quotes above suggest that the UK did not follow through the plan that Tony Blair’s had secretly offered George Bush, which, as defined here, was not significantly different from the approach that he espoused publicly. Blair’s strategy involved publicly seeking to disarm Iraq through the UN inspections process until that process had been “exhausted”, although it remains unclear what that criterion meant or who would judge it. In this context, the quote from Blix is very significant. Blix asserted clearly that, although Iraq had begun active co-operation later than was required, he believed that the process was still capable of succeeding. The fact that the US and UK launched a war that cut short that process has led many people to suspect involving the UN was intended merely to provide cover for the invasion. The Inquiry will need to consider why the UK government argued that the process had failed and that an invasion of Iraq was necessary to enforce the disarmament of Iraq.

Was Iraq in breach of its disarmament obligations?


In the run up to the war the UK government asserted that Iraq was in breach of its disarmament obligations under UNSCR 1441 because it had not declared its holdings of proscribed weapons and because it was in other ways refusing to co-operate with the requirements of the resolution. Although it has since become clear that Iraq did not at that stage have wmd, the government has continued to assert that it was nevertheless in breach of its obligations and to such an extent that this justified the war. The Inquiry will need to consider these two issues separately, as well as what the government believed to be the case at the time. It appears that some ministers and officials believed that Iraq was in breach of its obligations, including concealing WMD, but believed that the UN inspection process should be able to continue, in order to establish this one way or another.

Was the purpose of an attempted second resolution to avoid war or to justify it?


It is clear that the UK government made strenuous efforts in early 2003 to obtain a new UN resolution. Most of the references to this stress the importance of the resolution, which was never voted on, in providing political and legal cover for the invasion. In spite of this, the government has stated that the purpose of seeking the new resolution was to secure Iraqi disarmament. These aims were not necessarily incompatible, given that the government’s stated purpose was to use the threat of force to put pressure on Iraq to disarm. However, the Inquiry will need to consider whether the government’s attempts to secure the resolution indicate that its primary concern was to justify war.


The six tests

During the course of the negotiations, the UK attempted to set “six tests” for Iraq to demonstrate that it was complying with its obligations. These included a demand that Saddam Hussein should make a public statement admitting that Iraq had wmd and a commitment to surrender all mobile biological laboratories for destruction.


Opposition to a resolution supporting war

During the negotiations French president Jacques Chiraq stated in an interview that France would at that time oppose any resolution that led to war. The UK government portrayed his statement that this would apply whether or not such a resolution enjoyed the support of a majority of security council votes as saying that France would veto a second resolution “no matter what”.

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One comment to this article

  1. Ashley Knight

    on December 2, 2009 at 11:49 am -

    As you mention, it is clear that Tony Blair did not accurately reflect Jacques Chirac’s position relating to the use of the French veto on the second resolution. This misrepresentation was even included in the motion Blair put before the House before the Commons debate on Iraq:

    ‘..regrets that despite sustained diplomatic effort by Her Majesty’s Government it has not proved possible to secure a second Resolution in the UN because one Permanent Member of the Security Council made plain in public its intention to use its veto whatever the circumstances;..’

    Given the importance that Mr Blair attached to achieving this second resolution, and indeed the fact that during his appearance before Chilcot’s dead sheep Sir David Manning repeatedly referred to the resolution as an example of the UK’s success in influencing the American approach to going to war, I find it staggering that the question of the subsequent misrepresentation was not put to either Sir Jeremy Greenstock or Mr Manning.

    Surely this is a key example of the Blair approach to the whole Iraq issue, in that for the umpteenth time he decided to cherry-pick only the evidence that supported the case for going to war on the timetable that Bush had set out. I very much hope that Chilcot will put this to our former Prime Minister on his appearance before the inquiry, but I fear I am whistling in the wind.