LONDON – The British government was aware of “drumbeats in Washington” in early 2001 calling for a change of regimes in Iraq but steered clear of such an aggressive policy before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 that year, officials said Tuesday as a panel launched a major inquiry into 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, told 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 inquiry is probing the decision of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government to join the U.S.-led war that toppled Saddam, the Iraqi dictator, in 2003. The six-member panel 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 alleged weapons of mass destruction that were never found, was controversial in 2003 and steadily lost support among the British public. The panel is expected to look into long-standing accusations that his government skewed intelligence reports to justify going to war.
As the probe opened Tuesday 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 by declaring the war was justified.
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 added. “We want to examine the evidence. We will approach our task in a way that is thorough, rigorous, fair and frank.”
The committee began Tuesday by examining British policy toward Iraq and Britain’s relationship with the U.S. on the issue just before and after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. The first three witnesses were Defense Ministry or Foreign Office officials with the Blair government at that time.
All three officials said it was not part of British or U.S. policy through 2001 to seek to bring down Saddam and his government. But Peter Ricketts, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in 2001, said the Blair government was aware that there were U.S. voices calling for regime change.
Asked if Britain would have supported the effort to overthrow Saddam 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.”
The hearings continue until early 2010.