Tony Blair has said that he had always made clear to US president George Bush that he would be “up for” regime change in Iraq if it was the only way of dealing with Saddam Hussein.
Making his second appearance before the Iraq Inquiry, the former prime minister acknowledged that he had discussed ousting Saddam with Mr Bush as early December 2001 – even though it was not then British policy.
The inquiry released a newly-declassified document from March 2002 – a year before the invasion by Britain and the US – in which Mr Blair said the UK should be “gung ho” about the prospect of getting rid of the Iraqi dictator.
In his evidence to the inquiry, Mr Blair said that, while he made clear that he would always stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the Americans, he had also succeeded in persuading the US leader to go down the “UN route” first.
The former premier said regime change in Baghdad had always been “on the agenda” for the Americans after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. He acknowledged that it had come up when he spoke to Mr Bush by telephone on December 3 that year.
Mr Blair said: “Regime change was their policy, so regime change was part of the discussion. If it became the only way of dealing with this issue, we were going to be up for that. The Americans, from September 11 onwards, this was on their agenda.”
The inquiry also released a note from Mr Blair to his chief-of-staff Jonathan Powell shortly before his visit to Mr Bush at the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002, in which he argued that Labour should be “gung ho” about dealing with Saddam.
Mr Blair wrote: “Saddam’s regime is a brutal, oppressive military dictatorship. He kills his opponents, has wrecked his country’s economy and is a source of instability and danger in the region.
“I can understand a right-wing Tory opposed to ‘nation-building’ being opposed to it on grounds it hasn’t any direct bearing on our national interest. But in fact a political philosophy that does care about other nations – e.g. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone – and is prepared to change regimes on the merits, should be gung-ho on Saddam.”
By the autumn of 2002, after Iraq failed to co-operate properly with the United Nations Security Resolution which allowed for the return of UN weapons inspectors, Mr Blair said he was determined to stick with the Americans. He said: “Once it became clear that Saddam had not changed but was carrying on in the same way, I think it would have been profoundly wrong of us to have gone back to the Americans and said ‘I know we said that we would be with you in handling this, but now we are not’.”