Was Iraq seen as a threat?

“That there is a threat from Saddam Hussein and the weapons of mass destruction that he has acquired is not in doubt at all.”
Tony Blair 11 March 2002

In the run-up to the war, ministers repeatedly asserted that Iraq was a threat, both to regional stability and to British interests. This alleged threat was primarily based on claims that Iraq possessed and was developing weapons of mass destruction (wmd). After the war no wmd were found.

The Inquiry will need to consider to what extent the government genuinely believed before the invasion that Iraq was a threat. Because Iraq’s alleged development and possible use of wmd were the main justification for the invasion, the Inquiry will need to focus primarily on the government’s assessment of this potential threat. It may also consider whether Iraq was legitimately considered to pose a threat for other reasons.

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.


What the Inquiry has been told

Witnesses at the Inquiry have given starkly differing account of whether the British government saw Iraq as a threat in the run-up to the war. On the first day of public hearings, Peter Ricketts, who was chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in 2001 and subsequently the Foreign Office’s policy director, repeatedly referred to a “threat” from Iraq. But when asked by Sir Roderick Lyne whether this represented “a high threat, a medium threat or a low threat to international peace and security”, he replied, “We certainly continued to see Iraq’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction as a continuing threat.”

Tony Blair repeatedly used the word threat during his appearance in January 2010 and told the Inquiry that he “regarded this whole issue as a threat to our security.” But in a statement to the Inquiry, former diplomat Carne Ross said that: “Throughout my posting in New York, it was the UK and US assessment that while there were many unanswered questions about Iraq’s WMD stocks and capabilities, we did not believe that these amounted to a substantial threat. … The UK believed that the Iraqi threat had been effectively contained.”

What the evidence shows

A large number of published and leaked documents detail the government’s internal assessment of the threat posed by Iraq. For the most part, these include an assumption that Iraq did possess wmd. However, even on the base of this false assumption, Iraq was rarely seen as a significant threat.

March 2002

The March 2002 Cabinet Office options paper states that a long term objective of UK policy is an Iraq that, amongst other things, does not “threaten its neighbours”. It notes that “there is no greater threat now that [Saddam] will use WMD than there has been in recent years” but adds that his “brutal regime … destabilises the Arab and wider Islamic world.”

In a letter dated 22 March 2002, Ricketts, who was then the Foreign Office’s policy director, advised Jack Straw: “The truth is that what has changed is not the pace of Saddam Hussein’s WMD programmes, but our tolerance of them post-11 September. This is not something we need to be defensive about…”. But he also said that “To get public and Parliamentary support for military operations, we have to be convincing that the threat is so serious/imminent that it is worth sending our troops to die for.”

In a memo to Blair on 25 March, Straw said: “The Iraqi regime plainly poses a most serious threat to its neighbours, and therefore to international security. However, in the documents so far presented it has been hard to glean whether the threat from Iraq is so significantly differently from that of Iran and North Korea as to justify military action.”

Straw then made a further comment that appeared to echo Ricketts’ advice, except that the slightly different form of words that he used suggested that he did not share the view that the events of September 11 required a less tolerant approach to Iraq: “If 11 September had not happened, it is doubtful that the US would now be considering military action against Iraq. In addition, there has been no credible evidence to link Iraq with UBL and Al Qaida. Objectively, the threat from Iraq has not worsened as a result of 11 September. What has however changed is the tolerance of the international community (especially that of the US)…”.

Having stated that it was not clear to him that Iraq was so significantly differently from that of Iran and North Korea as to justify military action, he stated that “A lot of work will now need to be to delink the three, and to show why military action against Iraq is so much more justified than against Iran and North Korea.” This suggests that Straw sought to make a case that he did not himself believe.

July 2002 Downing Street Meeting

At a meeting at Downing Street on 23 July 2002, Jack Straw said that “Saddam was not threatening his neighbours”.

An offensive or a defensive threat?

There is also evidence that the government misrepresented intelligence assessments of the circumstances in which Iraq might use its supposed wmd. The Joint Intelligence Committee had for some time made clear that Saddam Hussein was unlikely to use wmd unless his regime was under threat. This was not stated in the September 2002 dossier. In fact, material which implied Iraq would only use wmd if attacked was deliberately removed from the dossier. Read more