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New Memos Detail Early Plans for Invading Iraq

British officials believed the U.S. favored military force a year before the war, documents show.

June 15, 2005|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

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.

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