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Blair and Bush to plot war on Iraq
24 February 2002
Tony Blair and the United States President George Bush are to hold a specially convened summit in April to finalise details of military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Blair will travel to Washington in six weeks' time in a clear signal that Downing Street fully backs Bush's plans to launch a war against Iraq if Saddam does not agree to deadlines to destroy his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
'The meeting will be to finalise Phase Two of the war against terrorism,' a senior Number 10 official said. 'Action against Iraq will be at the top of the agenda.'
With evidence growing of a Labour Party backlash over American action against Saddam, the Government is now planning to publish for the first time detailed evidence of Iraq's nuclear capabilities. The document will reveal that Saddam is attempting to amass rudimentary nuclear capabilities and is also investigating a way to launch 'dirty' nuclear bombs - unsophisticated devices which would nevertheless wreak havoc if ever used.
Western intelligence services also believe Saddam is developing biological and chemical devices which could kill and maim tens of thousands of people.
The Number 10 official said that, as with Osama bin Laden and the war in Afghanistan, it is necessary to maintain public and international support for military action against Saddam.
It was a 'public persuasion' issue and would be tackled in the same way as the unprecedented 'indictment' against bin Laden published by Downing Street last year with the agreement of the White House.
Bush has been under increasing attack from Europe over his desire to see Saddam removed from power. His 'axis of evil' speech earlier this year, when he named Iraq, Iran and North Korea as international pariah states, has been attacked by both the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, and the European Union commissioner for external affairs, Chris Patten. The Foreign Office in particular is irritated by the bellicose language, which officials said revealed that hawkish elements in Washington had won over the President's mind.
But The Observer can reveal that Blair has told his inner circle that he believes the attacks on the President are misplaced and that it is only by the threat of action that reformist elements within Iraq will be encouraged to rise up against Saddam.
In a series of long telephone conversation over the past two months, Bush has kept Blair aware of his plans for military action. Although there is no evidence of any link between Iraq and the attacks of 11 September, both leaders will make it clear that weapons of mass destruction are a legitimate target for military action. 'The alliance with the United States is strong, it will remain strong,' Blair said yesterday at a meeting of European leaders in Stockholm.
'We will deal with issues together. The Americans are absolutely right to emphasise the continuing importance of the war against terrorism and continuing the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.'
In an interview to be broadcast by the BBC's On the Record programme today, US Assistant Secretary of State, Beth Jones, admitted that 'nothing was off the table' when it came to Iraq.
'I think Americans aren't alone - there are many many people in the world who want Saddam to no longer be in charge in Iraq,' says Jones. 'There's no question about that. I think it's fair to say that nothing is off the table.'
The April summit will significantly increase world tension on the issue as Middle East nations watch warily for any signal that Bush will act precipitately against Saddam.
Many Muslim leaders fear a leadership vacuum and political chaos in Iraq, which could affect the standing of neighbouring countries in the region.
It now seems likely that Saddam will be set a deadline to allow in weapons inspectors who will oversee the destruction of Iraq's weaponry or face military consequences.
The Prime Minister is aware of a growing revolt within his own party and some elements of the British military against action in Iraq.
Intelligence officials in Britain have told The Observer that there is concern about over-committing in Iraq and of making military promises that cannot be kept.
They have advised Number 10 that the only 'window' for action is in the autumn and winter of this year, when the fierce heat in the region abates slightly.
A poll of 100 backbench MPs by On the Record, to be released today, reveals wide spread disquiet about the developments.
Asked if there was sufficient evidence to support an attack on Iraq, 86 MPs said no, while only 12 agreed, and three said they did not know.
Similar levels of opposition to Bush's 'axis of evil' speech were also apparent.
Asked about his attitude to attacks on Iraq, former Defence Minister Doug Henderson tells the programme: 'I think a lot of us would have severe worries - one, that the action wouldn't be successful, that Saddam wouldn't be toppled and it would be left with an invasion force in Iraq; or secondly, that we'd alienate too many of the other countries whose support we need to fight terrorism internationally.'