Richard Norton-Taylor / The Guardian – 2010-07-28 01:15:56
LONDON (July 27, 2010) — The Blair government would have liked to have gone down the diplomatic route to disarm Saddam Hussein but became a “prisoner” of a US policy heading towards war, the former head of the UN weapons inspectors told the Iraq inquiry today.
Both Britain and the US should have realized “their sources were poor” when his inspectors found nothing in Iraq, Hans Blix said. It should have set alarm bells ringing in London and Washington when the inspectors repeatedly failed to turn up any evidence that Saddam still had active WMD programmes, he told the Chilcot inquiry.
Blix said it was his “firm view” that the invasion of Iraq was illegal, adding: “I think the vast majority of international lawyers feel that way.”
Lord Goldsmith, Tony Blair’s attorney general, had “wriggled” before he finally provided the legal authority for British troops to invade, Blix said. “He was not quite sure it would have stood an international tribunal. Nevertheless, he gave the green light to it.”
Directing his criticism at the US rather than Britain, Blix told the inquiry: “The UK was wedded to the UN route but eventually became prisoner of the American train.” He described the Bush administration of being “high on military” in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001. “They felt that they could get away with it and therefore it was desirable,” Blix told the inquiry.
Blix called claims by Condoleezza Rice, the then US secretary of state, that Washington’s policy was one of trying to uphold the authority of the UN security council as “totally absurd”. He described the close relationship between previous UN weapons inspectors and US and UK intelligence agencies as “scandalous”.
So, too, he said, were US and UK intelligence claims, based on a forged document, that Iraq was trying to get its hands on uranium oxide for its alleged nuclear weapons programme.
Blix said he had privately confided to Blair in the autumn of 2002 — before the inspectors returned to Iraq — that he thought it was “plausible” that Saddam did have WMD. However, in the weeks leading up to the 2003 invasion — after the inspectors had failed to uncover anything significant — he had cautioned Blair that there might not be anything.
Blix said he told Blair: “Wouldn’t it be paradoxical if you were to invade Iraq with 250,000 men and find very little?” He added: “I gave a warning that things had changed and there might not be so much.”
Blix said the inspectors had visited 30 sites based on tip-offs from British and US intelligence but found little other than some old missile engines and a sheaf of nuclear documents.
The inquiry earlier revealed that defence ministers were formally warned that military commanders were pressing for better protection from improvised explosive devices, IEDs, than that provided by thinly-armoured Snatch Land Rovers. Lt Gen Sir Nicholas Houghton, then chief of joint operations, wrote: “We need a medium-weight PPV (protected patrol vehicle) â€¦ in order to provide a significantly enhanced physical protection against EFP IEDs (explosively formed projectile improvised explosive devices) and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) in order to prosecute our missions successfully without unnecessary casualties,” according to a declassified memo dated July 2006.
A handwritten note on the memo reads: “NB Note ministers can no longer say in the house that they have had no request from commanders for an alternative to the Snatch.”
The inquiry has heard how a shortage of helicopters in both Iraq and Afghanistan exacerbated the problem as troops had to rely more on vulnerable Snatch Land Rovers than they otherwise would have had to.
Lt Gen Sir Robert Fulton, deputy chief of defence staff responsible for equipment from 2003 to 2006, defended the military’s response to growing concerns about the Snatch Land Rover. He told the inquiry that as much extra armour was added to the vehicle as possible, but eventually an alternative was needed.
“This was a constant process of adding more and more protection,” he said. “Of course there is going to come a time when the enemy has gone on adding kilograms of explosive and you can’t go on adding kilograms of steel, and therefore there has to be a step change.”
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