Was the government primarily concerned about the threat of Iraq’s wmd or did it use the issue as a pretext?

From early 2002 the government portrayed its approach to Iraq as being aimed at tackling the issue of Iraq’s continuing possession of weapons of mass destruction (wmd). But it has been alleged that Tony Blair was more concerned to support the US invasion and sought to use the issue of wmd to justify this.

It is clear that the government did indeed seek to use Iraq’s alleged wmd to provide a justification for war. There is significant evidence that the government was more committed to regime change than tackling wmd, i.e. that it was prepared to take part in the invasion even if it did not resolve the wmd issue and that it did take part in the invasion in spite of significant doubts that Iraq possessed illegal weapons.

But there is also evidence that ministers and officials were genuinely concerned by the belief that Iraq was still developing banned weapons and it is arguable that the government was seeking to justify the policy that it saw as necessary to tackle this issue. The Inquiry will need to consider what the government’s main policy driver was.

What was the objective?

 
In assessing the extent to which government policy was intended to address the issue of Iraq’s wmd, the Inquiry will need to unpick a number of issues that became entangled in the run-up to war. The first question is how much of a problem or threat Iraq’s alleged wmd programmes were perceived to be. On the basis of this, was it judged that the programmes that were believed to exist needed to be eliminated, rather than contained? Finally, did the government believe that that outcome could only be achieved through military action?
 

MI6 papers December 2002

In December 2001, Senior SIS (MI6) offical Sir Mark Allen (who gave evidence to the Inquiry as SIS4) wrote a series of papers about Iraq, which have been published in redacted form by the Inquiry.

The second of these papers discusses “how we could combine an objective of regime change in Baghdad with the need to protect important regional interest (sic) which would be at grave risk, if a bombing campaign against Iraq were launched in the short term” and sets out “a possible way ahead”.

A paragraph headed “Why move?” argues:

The removal of Saddam remains a prize because it could give new security to oil supplies; engage a powerful and secular state in the fight against Sunni extremist terror, open political horizons in the GCC states, remove a threat to Jordan/Israel, undermine the regional logic on WMD. The major challenge would be managing the regional reintegration of Iraq, without damaging important local relationships. Working for regime change could be a dynamic process of alliance building which could effect climatic change in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As this paragraph suggests, the paper does not identify Iraq’s WMD as a problem in itself but an element of a regional problem of WMD possession, including “talk about double standards over Israel and WMD”. It states that “The problem of WMD is an element in driving for action against Iraq.”
 

The options paper

The March 2002 options paper sets out the longstanding objective of UK policy as “to re-integrate a law-abiding Iraq which does not possess WMD or threaten its neighbours, into the international community.” It states: “Implicitly, this cannot occur with Saddam Hussein in power, ” which appears to be a reference to re-integrating Iraq into the international community. The paper seems therefore to show that the government was seeking, if possible, both to eliminate Iraq’s wmd and to achieve regime change.

The paper then purports to discuss whether tougher containment of Iraq or regime change will meet the government’s objectives. It comments that: “The US administration has lost faith in containment and is now considering regime change.” The policy of toughened containment involves the re-introduction of UN inspectors in an attempt to scrutinise Iraq’s presumed wmd programmes, backed up by the threat of military action, which would be justified if Iraq does not comply. This bears strong similarities with the policy subsequently espoused by the government.

However, among the disadvantages identified by the paper were that “Tougher containment would not re-integrate Iraq into the international community as it offers little prospect of removing Saddam. He will continue with his WMD programmes…”. Although it appears from this that even toughened containment was not considered as an effective way of eliminating Iraq’s wmd, the paper notes that “there is no greater threat no that he will use WMD than there has been in recent years, so continuing containment is an option.”

The paper’s discussion of regime change does not consider its merits (except to note that “even a representative government could seek to acquire WMD”) but considers how it might be achieved.

The paper’s eventual conclusion that an invasion “is the only option that we can be confident will remove Saddam and bring Iraq back into the international community” seems to suggest that regime change was chosen over containment because it would remove Saddam.
 

The Ricketts letter

The letter from foreign office policy director Peter Ricketts to Jack Straw dated 22 March 2002 suggests that Ricketts believed that a policy of tougher containment through the return of UN weapons inspectors was an acceptable policy, if George Bush could be persuaded to adopt it. In the context of advice that “By sharing Bush’s broad objective the Prime Minister can help shape how it is defined”, Ricketts suggested that it should be put to Bush that if Saddam accepted the unhindered return of the inspectors “we can further hobble his WMD programmes”.
 

Straw’s Memo

In his memo to Blair dated 25 March, Jack Straw did not suggest the return of the UN inspectors for any reason other than to provide a public and legal justification for war. He told Blair: “That Iraq is in flagrant breach of international legal obligations imposed on it by the UNSC provides us with the core of a strategy.” This again shows that the government intended to use wmd as a justification for war but does not prove that it was not its primary concern. Straw also told Blair: “we may want credibly to assert that regime change is an essential part of the strategy by which we have to achieve our ends – that of the elimination of Iraq’s WMD capacity; but the latter has to be the goal.”
 

Chequers meeting April 2002

According to Alastair Campbell’s published diaries, Blair held a meeting at Chequers to discuss Iraq on 2 April 2002. “We discussed whether the central aim was WMD or regime change. … TB felt it was regime change in part because of WMD but more broadly because of the threat to he region and the world.”
 

The July 2002 Briefing Paper

The 21 July 2002 briefing paper on “Conditions for military action” sets out, as its title suggests, what conditions will have to be met in order that the government can definitively commit to the invasion. It defines the objective of UK policy in similar terms to the options paper: “a stable and law-abiding Iraq, within present borders, co-operating with the international community, no longer posing a threat to its neighbours or to international security, and abiding by its international obligations on WMD.” It also comments that “it seems unlikely that this could be achieved while the current Iraqi regime remains in power.”

But, in the same paragraph, the paper comments that: “US military planning unambiguously takes as its objective the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime, followed by elimination if Iraqi WMD. It is however, by no means certain, in the view of UK officials, that one would necessarily follow from the other. Even if regime change is a necessary condition for controlling Iraqi WMD, it is certainly not a sufficient one.”

Because the leaked paper is incomplete, it is not clear what other measures were thought necessary to secure this. But the assessment that regime change alone would not necessarily achieve this outcome suggests that dealing with the wmd issue was not the government’s highest priority.

In discussing the way that an attempted re-introduction of UN weapons inspectors might secure a “justification” for military action, the paper comments that “It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject”. This again suggests the government was not interested in scrutinising Iraq’s wmd and preferred to move directly to military action if a justification for this could be achieved.
 

The July 2002 Downing Street Meeting

On 23 July 2002, Tony Blair told the meeting at Downing Street for which the briefing paper had been prepared: “If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work.” This again suggests that the issue of wmd was seen primarily as part of a political strategy to make a military intervention possible.

Did the government believe that Iraq had wmd?

 
Intelligence assessments from the 1990’s judged that Iraq probably retained wmd from before the 1991 Gulf war and was continuing to develop banned weapons. The documents described above show that, for the first part of 2002, government policy was based on an assumption that Iraq did have wmd, although the intelligence was said to be poor, sporadic and patchy and it was thought that any stocks of chemical weapons would be small. How accurate were intelligence reports and assessments?

It has been alleged that on two occasions, in September 2002 and early 2003, highly-placed Iraqi sources reported that Iraq did not have wmd. Neither this nor the failure or UN weapons inspectors to find wmd appear to have affected the government’s determination to take part in the invasion.

Was Iraq a threat?

 
For Iraq to be in breach of UN resolutions did not require it to have significant stocks of wmd or to pose a threat to its neighbours. But the question of whether the problem posed by Iraq’s wmd justified military action is a separate issue.

There is evidence that ministers and officials assessed that the threat posed by Iraq was not sufficiently serious to justify war, either in policy terms or to domestic and international opinion. There is also evidence that ministers went significantly further than intelligence assessments in describing the scale of Iraq’s alleged wmd programmes or the extent to which they posed a threat, to regional stability or British interests. Read more
 

Why Iraq?

In February 2002, the government began to prepare a series of papers for possible publication on the wmd of “four countries of concern”, Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea. In mid-March it was decided to concentrate on Iraq. As described above, having looked at these papers Jack Straw found it hard to glean why Iraq presented a more pressing or serious problem than the other countries. The decision to concentrate on Iraq appears to have been taken on issues other than concerns over its wmd.

Why was an invasion launched before the UN inspectors had established whether Iraq had wmd?

 
Having put so much stress on the readmission of UN weapons inspectors, the government decided that it would take part in the invasion even though the inspectors had been readmitted and were not encountering any significant obstruction but had not found any evidence of wmd. This suggests that at this point the invasion was a predetermined outcome – perhaps required by the US military timetable – rather than an attempt to deal with Iraq’s wmd. Read more
 
Back to Why did the government decide to take part in the US-led invasion of Iraq?