LONDON – Sitting on a terrace overflowing with petunias near the Cabinet room where decisions about the Iraq war were made, Prime Minister Tony Blair firmly denied Wednesday that the Bush administration signaled just months after Sept. 11 that a decision was made to invade.
Blair said he was “astonished” by claims that leaked secret memos suggested the United States was rushing to war.
In an interview with the Associated Press a day after President Bush delivered a televised defense of the war in Iraq, Blair said defeating the insurgency was crucial to protecting security worldwide, and joined Bush in linking the war with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“What happened for me after Sept. 11 is that the balance of risk changed,” Blair said.
After Sept. 11, it was necessary to “draw a line in the sand here, and the country to do it with was Iraq because they were in breach of U.N. resolutions going back over many years,” he said. “I took the view that if these people ever got hold of nuclear, chemical or biological capability, they would probably use it.”
Blair was asked about the leaked memos, which suggest strong concerns in the British government that the Bush administration was determined in 2002 to invade Iraq – months before the United States and Britain unsuccessfully sought U.N. Security Council approval for military action.
“People say the decision was already taken. The decision was not already taken.” Blair said he was “a bit astonished” at the intensive U.S. media coverage about the memos, which included minutes of a July 23, 2002, meeting between Blair and top officials at his Downing Street office.
According to the minutes of the meeting, Sir Richard Dearlove, then chief of Britain’s intelligence service, said the White House viewed military action against Saddam Hussein as inevitable following the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush “wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD” (weapons of mass destruction), read the memo, seen by the AP. “But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
Blair said raising such concerns was natural.
“The trouble with having a political discussion on the basis of things that are leaked is that they are always taken right out of context.” Blair suggested that ensuring victory in Iraq was now more important than debating the case for invasion.
“The most important thing we can do in Iraq is concentrate on the fact … that what is happening there is a monumental battle that affects our own security,” he said. “You’ve got every bad element in the whole of the Middle East in Iraq trying to stop that country (from getting) on its feet and (becoming) a democracy.”
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