LONDON — In March 2002, the Bush administration had just begun to publicly raise the possibility of confronting Iraq. But behind the scenes, officials already were deeply engaged in seeking ways to justify an invasion, newly revealed British memos indicate.
Foreshadowing developments in the year before the war started, British officials emphasized the importance of U.N. diplomacy, which they said might force Saddam Hussein into a misstep. They also suggested that confronting the Iraqi leader be cast as an effort to prevent him from using weapons of mass destruction or giving them to terrorists.
The documents help flesh out the background to the formerly top-secret "Downing Street memo" published in the Sunday Times of London last month, which said that top British officials were told eight months before the war began that military action was "seen as inevitable." President Bush and his main ally in the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have long maintained that they had not made up their minds to go to war at that stage.
"Nothing could be farther from the truth," Bush said last week, responding to a question about the July 23, 2002, memo. "Both of us didn't want to use our military. Nobody wants to commit military into combat. It's the last option."
Publication of the Downing Street memo at the height of Britain's election campaign at first garnered little notice in U.S. media or other British newspapers. But in the weeks that followed, anger has grown among war critics, who contend that the document proves the Bush administration had already decided on military action, even while U.S. officials were saying that war was a last resort.
The new documents indicate that top British officials believed that by March 2002, Washington was already leaning heavily toward toppling Hussein by military force. Condoleezza Rice, the current secretary of State who was then Bush's national security advisor, was described as enthusiastic about "regime change."
Although British officials said in the documents that they did not think Iraq's weapons programs posed an immediate threat and that they were dubious of any claimed links between the Iraqi government and Al Qaeda, they indicated that they were willing to join in a campaign to topple Hussein as long as the plan would succeed and was handled with political and legal care.
The documents contain little discussion about whether to mount a military campaign. The focus instead is on how the campaign should be presented to win the widest support and the importance for Britain of working through the United Nations so an invasion could be seen as legal under international law.
Michael Smith, the defense writer for the Times of London who revealed the Downing Street minutes in a story May 1, provided a full text of the six new documents to the Los Angeles Times.
Portions of the new documents, all labeled "secret" or "confidential," have appeared previously in two British newspapers, the Times of London and the Telegraph. Blair's government has not challenged their authenticity.
They cover a period when reports had begun appearing that the Bush administration was forming plans to go after Hussein in the next phase of its "war on terrorism." A Feb. 10, 2002, article in the Los Angeles Times, for instance, said that the U.S. was considering action against Hussein that might require a massive number of U.S. troops.
Published accounts, including those by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and former U.S. counter-terrorism chief Richard A. Clarke, said that Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld began focusing on Iraq soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
In his Jan. 29, 2002, State of the Union address, Bush described Iraq, Iran and North Korea as part of an "axis of evil."
The documents present a picture of a U.S. government fed up with the policy of containing Iraq, skeptical of the U.N. and focused on ousting Hussein.
Blair's advisors were weighing how Britain could participate in a war. The need to establish a policy on Iraq led to a flurry of meetings between senior U.S. and British officials and internal British government memos in advance of a Bush-Blair summit in April 2002 at the president's ranch near Crawford, Texas. (According to one of the subsequent documents that has been leaked, a British Cabinet briefing paper written in July 2002, Blair gave Bush a conditional commitment at the Texas summit to support military action to remove Hussein.)
In one memorandum, dated March 14, 2002, and labeled "secret — strictly personal," Blair's chief foreign policy advisor, David Manning, described to the prime minister a dinner he had had with Rice.
"We spent a long time at dinner on Iraq," wrote Manning, now the British ambassador to the U.S. "It is clear that Bush is grateful for your [Blair's] support and has registered that you are getting flak. I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was different from anything in the States. And you would not budge either in your insistence that, if we pursued regime change, it must be very carefully done and produce the right result. Failure was not an option."
The memo went on to say:
"Condi's enthusiasm for regime change is undimmed. But there were some signs, since we last spoke, of greater awareness of the practical difficulties and political risks . From what she said, Bush has yet to find answers to the big questions:
How to persuade international opinion that military action against Iraq is necessary and justified;
What value to put on the exiled Iraqi opposition;
How to coordinate a US/allied military campaign with internal opposition (assuming there is any);
What happens the morning after?"
Manning told Blair that given Bush's eagerness for British backing, the prime minister would have "real influence" on the public relations strategy, on the issue of encouraging the United States to go first to the United Nations and on any U.S. military planning.
Manning said it could prove helpful if Hussein refused to allow renewed U.N. weapons inspections.
"The issue of weapons inspectors must be handled in a way that would persuade Europe and wider opinion that the U.S. was conscious of the international framework, and the insistence of many countries on the need for a legal basis. Renewed refusal by Saddam to accept unfettered inspections would be a powerful argument," Manning wrote Blair.
Four days after the Manning memo, Christopher Meyer, then the British ambassador in Washington, wrote to Manning about a lunch he had with Paul D. Wolfowitz, then the U.S. deputy secretary of Defense and a leading proponent in the administration of confronting Hussein. Meyer said in the memo that he had told Wolfowitz that U.N. pressure and weapons inspections could be used to trip up Hussein.
"We backed regime change," he wrote, "but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option. It would be a tough sell for us domestically, and probably tougher elsewhere in Europe."
Meyer wrote that he had argued that Washington could go it alone if it wanted to. "But if it wanted to act with partners, there had to be a strategy for building support for military action against Saddam. I then went through the need to wrong-foot Saddam on the inspectors and the [U.N. Security Council resolutions] and the critical importance of the [Middle East peace process] as an integral part of the anti-Saddam strategy. If all this could be accomplished skillfully, we were fairly confident that a number of countries would come on board."
Another memo, from British Foreign Office political director Peter Ricketts to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on March 22, 2002, bluntly stated that the case against Hussein was weak because the Iraqi leader was not accelerating his weapons programs and there was scant proof of links to Al Qaeda.
"What has changed is not the pace of Saddam Hussein's WMD programs, but our tolerance of them post-11 September," Ricketts wrote. "Attempts to claim otherwise publicly will increase skepticism about our case .
"U.S. scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda is so far frankly unconvincing," he said.
Ricketts said that other countries such as Iran appeared closer to getting nuclear weapons, and that arguing for regime change in Iraq alone "does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam." That was why the issue of weapons of mass destruction was vital, he said.
"Much better, as you [Straw] have suggested, to make the objective ending the threat to the international community from Iraqi WMD before Saddam uses it or gives it to terrorists," he said. A U.N. Security Council resolution demanding renewal of weapons inspections, he says, would be a "win/win."
"Either [Hussein] against all the odds allows Inspectors to operate freely, in which case we can further hobble his WMD programs, or he blocks/hinders, and we are on stronger grounds for switching to other methods," he wrote.
The arguments that Iraq had illegal, hidden weapons of mass destruction, programs to develop more of them, and that it might give them to terrorists were to become some of the Bush administration's chief reasons for the war. When no weapons were found, the administration blamed faulty intelligence and said the war still was justified because it ended Hussein's brutal dictatorship and allowed an emerging democratic government.
In November 2002, the U.S. and Britain managed to get a toughly worded resolution through the Security Council that reintroduced arms inspectors into Iraq for the first time since 1998. However, it fell short of authorizing the use of force against Hussein's government.
Straw, writing to Blair on March 25, 2002, expressed concern about a lack of support among members of Parliament from the governing Labor Party.
"Colleagues know that Saddam and the Iraqi regime are bad," he wrote. "But we have a long way to go to convince them as to: The scale of the threat from Iraq, and why this has got worse recently; what distinguishes the Iraqi threat from that of e.g. Iran and North Korea so as to justify military action; the justification for any military action in terms of international law; and whether the consequences really would be a compliant, law-abiding replacement government.
"Regime change per se is no justification for military action; it could form part of the method of any strategy, but not a goal," he said. "Elimination of Iraq's WMD capacity has to be the goal."
The new documents also include an earlier 10-page options paper, dated March 8, 2002, from the overseas and defense secretariat of the Cabinet Office, sketching out options for dealing with Iraq. The thrust of the memo was that the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War were likely to fail, and that, in any case, the U.S. had already given up on them.
"The U.S. has lost confidence in containment," the document said. "Some in government want Saddam removed. The success of Operation Enduring Freedom [the military code name for the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan], distrust of U.N. sanctions and inspection regimes, and unfinished business from 1991 are all factors.
"Washington believes the legal basis for an attack already exists. Nor will it necessarily be governed by wider political factors. The U.S. may be willing to work with a smaller coalition than we think desirable," it said.
The paper said the British view was that any invasion for the purpose of regime change "has no basis under international law."
The best way to justify military action, it said, would be to convince the Security Council that Iraq was in breach of its post-Gulf War obligations to eliminate its store of weapons of mass destruction.
The document appeared to rule out any action in Iraq short of an invasion.
"In sum, despite the considerable difficulties, the use of overriding force in a ground campaign is the only option that we can be confident will remove Saddam and bring Iraq back into the international community," it said.