George Bush considered provoking a war with Saddam Hussein’s regime by flying a United States spyplane over Iraq bearing UN colours, enticing the Iraqis to take a shot at it, according to a leaked memo of a meeting between the US President and Tony Blair.
The two leaders were worried by the lack of hard evidence that Saddam Hussein had broken UN resolutions, though privately they were convinced that he had. According to the memorandum, Mr Bush said: “The US was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours. If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach.”
He added: “It was also possible that a defector could be brought out who would give a public presentation about Saddam’s WMD, and there was also a small possibility that Saddam would be assassinated.” The memo damningly suggests the decision to invade Iraq had already been made when Mr Blair and the US President met in Washington on 31 January 2003 ‘ when the British Government was still working on obtaining a second UN resolution to legitimise the conflict.
The leaders discussed the prospects for a second resolution, but Mr Bush said: “The US would put its full weight behind efforts to get another resolution and would ‘twist arms’ and ‘even threaten’. But he had to say that if ultimately we failed, military action would follow anyway.” He added that he had a date, 10 March, pencilled in for the start of military action. The war actually began on 20 March.
Mr Blair replied that he was “solidly with the President and ready to do whatever it took to disarm Saddam.” But he also insisted that ” a second Security Council resolution would provide an insurance policy against the unexpected, and international cover, including with the Arabs” .
The memo appears to refute claims made in memoirs published by the former UK ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, who has accused Mr Blair of missing an opportunity to win the US over to a strategy based on a second UN resolution. It now appears Mr Bush’s mind was already made up.
There was also a discussion of what might happen in Iraq after Saddam had been overthrown. President Bush said that he “thought it unlikely that there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups”. Mr Blair did not respond. Details of the meeting are revealed in a book, Lawless World, published today by Philippe Sands, a professor of law at University College London.
“I think no one would be surprised at the idea that the use of spy planes to review what is going on would be considered,” Mr Sands told Channel 4 News last night. “What is surprising is the idea that they would be painted in the colours of the United Nations to provoke an attack which could then be used to justify material breach.
“Now that plainly looks as if it is deception, and it raises… questions of legality, both in terms of domestic law and international law.”
Other participants in the meeting were Mr Bush’s National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, her deputy, Dan Fried, the chief of staff, Andrew Card, Mr Blair’s then security adviser, Sir David Manning, his foreign policy aide, Matthew Rycroft, and his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell.
The Downing Street spokesman later said: “The Prime Minister only committed forces to Iraq after securing the approval of the Commons in the vote on 18 March 2003.”
The spokesman added: “All these matters have been thoroughly investigated and we stand by our position.”
* The Ministry of Defence will publish casualty figures for UK troops in Iraq on its website within the next few weeks, the Government disclosed last night. Defence Secretary John Reid said the figures ‘ which will be regularly updated ‘ would identify the number of personnel categorised as seriously injured and very seriously injured. He promised to alert MPs before the first publication of the figures. The pledge came in a Commons written reply.