Blair’s Role, US Tensions in Spotlight at Iraq Probe

LONDON ~ Britain’s Tony Blair may have swung behind US calls for regime change in Iraq after meeting President George W. Bush at his Texas ranch in 2002, a top diplomat told an inquiry into the war on Thursday.

Christopher Meyer, then Britain’s ambassador to Washington, said Blair’s line seemed to harden following talks at the Crawford ranch in April 2002, much of which were held in private with no advisors present.

He also detailed the warm personal relationship between the British prime minister and US president, saying Bush could talk to Blair but saw other world leaders as being “like creatures from outer space.”

Blair was Bush’s closest ally in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, carried out without UN Security Council approval. He resigned in 2007, partly due to the war’s unpopularity.

The probe heard that toppling Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was not an early priority for Bush, but on the day of the September 11, 2001 attacks by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network, the US raised questions about possible links to him.

Meyer, ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2003, said he was “not entirely clear what degree of convergence was, if you like, signed in blood at the Crawford ranch.”

But the day afterwards, Blair made a speech in which he publicly mentioned regime change for the first time.

“What he was trying to do was to draw the lessons of 9/11 and apply them to the situation in Iraq which led – I think not inadvertently but deliberately – to a conflation of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein,” he said.

“When I heard that speech, I thought that this represents a tightening of the UK/US alliance.”

Britain was still encouraging Washington to act with the approval of the UN Security Council, Meyer said.

The US position at this stage was a significant change from the Bush administration’s early days, when Iraq was seen as being like a “grumbling appendix”, the retired diplomat added.

While there were concerns over Saddam, there were initially no plans to take action, despite calls from US hardliners like Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, he said.

This changed after September 11. On the day of the attacks, Meyer spoke to Condoleezza Rice, then US national security advisor.

“She said: ‘There’s no doubt it’s an Al Qaeda operation’ but at the end of the conversation, she said: ‘We’re just looking to see whether there could possibly be any connection with Saddam Hussein,’” he told the inquiry.

The following weekend there was a “big ding-dong” – or dispute – at Camp David, the US presidential retreat, when Wolfowitz “argued very strongly” for action against Iraq, according to Meyer.

But he added: “The decision taken that weekend was that the prime concern was with Al Qaeda; it was with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and Iraq… had to be set aside for the time being.”

There was, though, a “fault line” emerging between Secretary of State Colin Powell on one side and Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the other.

Talk of regime change in Iraq increased in the months before the Blair-Bush meeting at Crawford, Meyer said, adding that Britain’s support was “taken for granted” by Washington.

Meanwhile, British attempts to get the US to focus more on post-war strategy in Iraq had little success.

Meyer said many US officials felt “it would be alright on the night”, while Cheney told him invading forces would be met with “cheers and flowers” when they reached Baghdad.

The publication of Meyer’s candid memoirs, DC Confidential, in 2005 drew sharp criticism from some ministers and lawmakers who accused him of a lack of discretion, even though its release was approved by officials.

The inquiry, Britain’s third related to the conflict, is looking at its role in Iraq between 2001 and 2009, when nearly all its troops withdrew.

Blair will give evidence in January and the committee will report by the end of 2010.

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