Tuesday, 24 November 2009


Iraq inquiry told of 'clear' threat from Saddam Hussein

The UK government "distanced itself" from talk of removing Saddam Hussein in early 2001 despite concerns about his threat, the Iraq inquiry has been told.

Sir Peter Ricketts, a top intelligence official at the time, said it was assumed it was not "our policy" despite growing talk in the US about the move.

On the first day of public hearings, four senior diplomats and advisers gave evidence on the war's origins.

The inquiry chairman has said he hopes to conclude his report in late 2010.

Relatives of some of the 179 UK service personnel killed in Iraq gathered outside the venue in central London where the hearings are being held, as did a number of anti-war protesters.

The long-awaited investigation into the UK's involvement in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the war itself and its aftermath, is expected to last for more than a year.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair will be among the future witnesses.

Tuesday's session looked at UK foreign policy towards Iraq in the lead-up to the war, which began in 2003.

Asked about the threat posed by Iraq in early 2001, Sir Peter Ricketts, who was the then chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee - which oversees MI5, MI6 and GCHQ - said it was palpable.

Sir Peter, now Head of the Diplomatic Service, said there was a "clear impression" that Saddam had a "continuing intention" to acquire weapons of mass destruction, having used them in the past.

Impact of 9/11

However, Sir Peter said there was no-one in the UK government in 2001 "promoting or supporting" regime change, as it was assumed "it was not our policy that we were seeking the removal of Saddam Hussein".

While there were "voices" in Washington calling for Saddam to be removed even before the Bush administration came to power in early 2001, this did not result in a change to the longstanding policy of trying to contain Iraq through sanctions, he said.

Sir William Patey, then head of the Middle East Department at the Foreign Office, said the UK had been aware "of the drumbeats from Washington" when it came to regime change but wanted to "stay away from that end of the spectrum".

Sir William - now ambassador to Saudi Arabia - acknowledged that international support for the sanctions policy in place against Iraq since 1991 - which underpinned the policy of containment - was steadily breaking down at the time.

However, asked whether this policy - which critics said was ineffective and which was actually hurting the Iraqi people - could have "kept Saddam caged" indefinitely, he replied "possibly".

Full report can be found on the BBC's website

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