LONDON — An inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq war kicked off Tuesday with top government advisers testifying that some Bush administration officials were calling for Saddam Hussein's ouster as early as 2001 – long before sanctions were exhausted and two years before the U.S.-led invasion.
Critics hope the hearings, which will call ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair and are billed as the most sweeping inquiry into the conflict, will expose alleged deception in the buildup to fighting. However, they won't establish criminal or civil liability.
As the inquiry began, a small group of anti-war protesters gathered near Parliament. Three wore face masks of George Bush, Blair and Prime Minister Gordon Brown – their hands and faces covered in fake blood.
"Five years we've waited for this, and finally we're getting somewhere," said Pauline Graham, 70, who traveled from the Scottish city of Glasgow to see the hearings. Her grandson Gordon Gentle, 19, was killed in the southern Iraqi city of Basra in 2004.
Sir Peter Ricketts, who was chairman of Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee in 2001, said Britain had hoped for a strengthened policy of containment – reducing the threat posed by Iraq through sanctions, weapons inspections and security measures. The strategy had been in place since the 1991 Gulf War when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait.
But Ricketts said some in the Bush administration had a different vision.
"We were conscious that there were other voices in Washington, some of whom were talking about regime change," Ricketts said, citing an article written by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warning that nothing would change in Iraq until Saddam was gone.
The panel will question dozens of officials over the next year – including military officials and spy agency chiefs. It will also seek evidence but not testimony from ex-White House staff.
Bereaved families and activists have long called for an inquiry into the U.S.-led war that left 179 British soldiers dead and triggered massive public protests. The Labour-led government lost a significant share of parliamentary seats because of the war.
But with no lawyers on the panel, few believe the inquiry will answer one of the most basic questions – whether the war was legal.
Blair will be questioned on whether he secretly backed U.S. President George W. Bush plan's for invasion a year before Parliament authorized military involvement in 2003.
"There were no weapons of mass destruction and we know that, so what are we going to get out of this?" asked Mabel Saili, a 49-year-old office administrator. "It's too little too late."
Led by a panel appointed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the inquiry can only offer reprimand and recommendations in hope mistakes won't be repeated in the future.
In the United States, the 9/11 Commission examined some issues around prewar intelligence, and a Senate select committee identified failures in intelligence gathering in a July 2004 report on prewar intelligence assessments.
But the Iraq inquiry is envisioned to be a comprehensive look at the war. Brown set up the inquiry to address public criticism of three key aspects of the conflict: the case made for war; the planning for the invasion; and the failure to prepare for reconstruction.
Any significant findings could pose embarrassing questions for the government ahead of a general election next year. Both the Labour Party and the opposition Conservatives voted for the invasion.
Leaked military documents published Sunday disclosed that senior British military officers claim war plans were in place months before the March 2003 invasion, but were so badly drafted they left troops poorly equipped and ill-prepared.
The panel said Tuesday it would first try to establish Britain's view of Iraq before 2003.
Ricketts, who is now the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, said elements of a containment strategy – sanctions, an incentive to lift sanctions if Saddam allowed weapons inspectors to return and no fly zones were already starting to show signs of failure in 2001.
The deterioration was linked to the rise of smuggling, Saddam's growing standing in the Arab world and the increasing unpopularity of the measures in Iraq.
Witnesses also said Saddam was feeling no pressure from the international community – the United States and Britain viewed Iraq as a considerable threat but a stumbling block had been Russia, which was against strict sanctions largely because of commercial interests.
"In February 2001, we were aware of these drum beats from Washington and internally we discussed it (ousting Saddam)," said Sir William Patey, head of the Middle East department at the Foreign Office in 2001 and now Britain's Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
"Our policy was to stay away from that. We didn't think Saddam was a good thing, and it would be great if he went, but we didn't have an explicit policy for trying to get rid of him."
Simon Webb, who in 2001 was policy director of the Ministry of Defense, said despite mounting skepticism over the containment strategy, there were no military plans in 2001 for regime change.
"The question of regime overthrow was, I recall, mentioned but it was quite clear that there was no proposition being put in our direction on that."
The turning point for the U.S. administration was Sept. 11 terror attacks, according to the three witnesses who said they believed the UN Security Council would have agreed to revised sanctions on Iraq if it weren't for the attacks.
"In 2001, we were seeing an acceleration of work on missile programs, we saw increased Iraq efforts to secure material for the nuclear program and we saw continuing interest in CW (chemical weapons) research and development," Ricketts said.
After the attacks, he said, "we heard people in Washington thought there might be some link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden ... I don't think we saw any evidence of it."
Webb said the change in the U.S. was dramatic.
"The shift in thinking was to say that we cannot afford to wait for these threats to materialize. We must be ready to engage potential threats wherever they emerge," he said.
Patey said up until he left the department in March 2002, there were still no plans for British military action in Iraq.
Some relatives of dead soldiers have demanded the chance to question Blair when he gives evidence to the panel early next year – an idea rejected by the inquiry.
A separate 2004 inquiry looked at intelligence on Iraq, clearing Blair's government but criticizing intelligence officials for relying on seriously flawed or unreliable sources.
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