Reporting from London — The British government was aware of "drumbeats in Washington" in early 2001 calling for the toppling of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein but steered clear of such an aggressive policy before the Sept. 11 attacks, officials said Tuesday as a panel launched a major inquiry on how and why the British government went to war in Iraq.
William Patey, head of the Foreign Office's Middle East department at the time, said during the hearing that in February 2001, "We were aware of these drumbeats in Washington and internally we discussed it. Our policy was to stay away from that.
"We didn't think that Saddam [Hussein] was a good thing and it would be great if he went," he said, "but we didn't have a policy for getting rid of him."
The six-member panel is looking into the decision of former Prime Minister Tony Blair's government to join the U.S.-led war that brought down the Iraqi dictator in 2003. It will interview policymakers, secret service chiefs, military commanders and relatives of soldiers who died in the war. Blair is scheduled to appear in January.
The former prime minister's decision to take Britain to war, in part to dismantle weapons of mass destruction that were never found, was controversial in 2003 and steadily lost support among the British public over time.
The panel is expected to look into long-standing accusations that Blair's government skewed intelligence reports to justify going to war.
As the inquiry opened in a conference center in central London, a small group of protesters dressed as Blair, former President George W. Bush and current British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gathered outside. Some demonstrators waved placards that declared "blood on your hands" and "no more whitewash," the latter a reference to previous inquiries that ended up justifying the war.
As he opened the proceedings, chairman John Chilcot emphasized that no one would be put on trial and his panel would not "determine guilt or innocence . . . but we will not shy away from making criticisms where they are warranted."
"We are apolitical and independent of any political party," he said.
"We want to examine the evidence. We will approach our task in a way that is thorough, rigorous, fair and frank."
The committee began by examining British policy on Iraq and Britain's relationship with the United States on the issue just before and after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The first three witnesses had either been in the Defense Ministry or the Foreign Office under the Blair government.
All three said it was not part of British or U.S. policy through 2001 to seek to bring down Hussein and his government. But Peter Ricketts, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in 2001, said the Blair government was aware that there were voices in the U.S. calling for the removal of Hussein.
He cited an article in Foreign Affairs magazine by Condoleezza Rice, written before she became a leading figure in the Bush administration, declaring that nothing would change in Iraq while Hussein was in power.
Simon Webb, a policy director at the Ministry of Defense at the time, said there were discussions in Washington on toppling Hussein in March 2001 "but it was quite clear there was no proposition being put in our direction on that."
Patey noted that British policy in 2001 consisted of supporting sanctions instituted after the 1991 Persian Gulf War as a means of forcing Hussein to allow international inspectors into his weapons facilities. Britain also backed weapons embargoes and the use of no-fly zones meant to protect Kurdish and Shiite populations in Iraq.
After the Sept. 11 attacks there was a different "tone" in Washington, said Ricketts, who became the Foreign Office director general of political affairs that month.
He cited wavering U.S. support for sanctions as a means of bringing about change, including his view that the Bush administration believed any international inspectors who did get in would be "hoodwinked" by Hussein.
Asked whether Britain would have supported the effort to overthrow Hussein if the Sept. 11 attacks had not occurred, Ricketts said, "I'm pretty sure . . . we would have remained convinced that a strengthened sanctions regime, tightened, narrowed, was the right way to go and we would have continued to push to get weapons inspectors back in."
Before the panel's opening session, military documents leaked to a British newspaper showed that the government's decision as early as February 2002 to go to war in Iraq was initially made with such secrecy that the planning process was "constrained," leading to a serious lack of resources and coordination and forcing soldiers to go to battle under-equipped. Some troops went with only five bullets; others had to take their equipment as hand luggage on civilian aircraft.