LONDON // Britain investigated the possibility of indicting Saddam Hussein for war crimes over the 1990 invasion of Kuwait as a means of ousting him from power in Iraq, it was disclosed yesterday. The move was one of a range of measures that Tony Blair considered in 2001 in a bid to achieve regime change in Baghdad, Sir John Sawers, the former prime minister's foreign affairs adviser and current head of MI6, told the Iraq Inquiry in London.
Sir John insisted that, at the time, there was no talk in Whitehall of an invasion. The inquiry has already heard that such discussions began only after Mr Blair and the former US president George W Bush had a private meeting in 2002. Before that, said Sir John, the government had wanted to get rid of Saddam by using similar methods that had led to Slobodan Milosevic being ousted in Serbia in 2000. He also said that, early in 2001, the incoming Bush administration had not talked of military action.
In addition to considering war crimes charges over the Kuwait invasion 11 years earlier, Mr Blair's advisers looked at providing support for opposition groups in exile to undermine the regime. "I think there are a lot of countries around the world where we would like to see a change of regime. That doesn't mean one pursues active policies in that direction," said Sir John. "Although support for change - change of behaviour, modernisation of systems, more open accountable systems, independence of the judiciary, free media, freedom of association - these sorts of issue that we pursued in our policies around the world that are designed to bring about improvements in the governments of countries, including change of leaders.
"That is not vastly different from the approach that we were pursuing in Iraq in a very difficult situation because Saddam Hussein was one of the world's last remaining dictators." Sir John said that when he had gone to Washington in January, 2001, to hold discussions with advisers to the recently elected president Bush, he said they seemed no keener to use force against Iraq than the outgoing president Bill Clinton had. On both sides of the Atlantic, though, he said there was agreement that existing policies aimed at containing Saddam were "unsustainable" because sanctions were not proving effective and were causing increasing anger among Arab states in the region.
There were also growing risks to pilots policing the "no-fly" zones over Iraq. But Sir John added: "There was no discussion of a military invasion or anything like that. That was not raised and not suggested. "There was obviously a concern on the American side that they should retain the right to use military force if their planes were threatened or brought down or if the weapons controls exercised through the UN proved ineffective.
"But that was reserving the right to use force rather than any plan or threat to use force any greater than President Clinton's administration had used." When Mr Blair had met Mr Bush at their first meeting at Camp David in February 2001, they had discussed Iraq and the US president had said that he wanted to adopt a more "realistic" policy, according to Sir John. The spy chief described Iraq as being seen at the time as a continuing, rather than a growing, problem. "The concern was that measures we had in place to contain the threat were increasingly difficult to sustain," he said.
At an earlier hearing, the inquiry had been told by Sir Christopher Meyer, the UK's ambassador to the US at the time, that Iraq had merely been regarded as a "grumbling appendix" for most of 2001. But after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September that year, "everything changed", according to Sir Christopher. Within 24 hours, Mr Bush had mentioned ousting Saddam to Mr Blair for the first time. "What he was trying to do was to draw the lessons of 9/11 and apply them to the situation in Iraq, which led, I think deliberately, to a conflation of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein," said Sir Christopher.
When Mr Blair went to Mr Bush's ranch in Crawford,Texas in 2002 - some months before the UN started its fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - military action against Saddam was "signed in blood", Sir Christopher claimed. The former diplomat added that Mr Bush "just wanted to get over there and kick Saddam out". He added that it was hoped the UN inspectors would provide the excuse by finding evidence of chemical or biological weapons.
"We found ourselves scrambling around for the smoking gun," Sir Christopher told the inquiry. "And we - the US and Britain - never really recovered because there was no smoking gun." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org