London In March 2002, the Bush administration had just begun to publicly raise the possibility of confronting Iraq. But behind the scenes, officials already were deeply engaged in seeking ways to justify an invasion, newly revealed British memos indicate.
Foreshadowing developments in the year before the war started, British officials suggested in the memos that U.N. diplomacy be used to force Saddam Hussein into a misstep and that confronting the Iraqi leader be cast as an effort to prevent him from using weapons of mass destruction or giving them to terrorists.
The documents help flesh out the background to the top-secret "Downing Street Memo" published in London last month, which said top British officials were told eight months before the war began that military action was "seen as inevitable." President Bush and his main ally in the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have long maintained that they had not made up their minds about going to war at that stage.
"Both us of didn't want to use our military," Bush said last week, responding to a question about the July 23, 2002, memo. "Nobody wants to commit military into combat. It's the last option."
Publication of the Downing Street Memo at the height of Britain's election campaign at first garnered little notice in U.S. media or other British newspapers. But in the weeks that followed, anger has grown among war critics, who contend that the document proves the Bush administration had already decided on military action, even while U.S. officials were saying war was a last resort.
The new documents indicate top British officials believed that by March 2002 Washington was already leaning heavily toward toppling Saddam by military force. Condoleezza Rice, then Bush's national security adviser, was described as enthusiastic about regime change.
The documents contain little discussion about whether to mount a military campaign. The focus instead is on how the campaign should be presented to win the widest support - and the importance for Britain of working through the United Nations so it could be seen as legal under international law.
Michael Smith, the defense writer who revealed the Downing Street minutes in a story in the Times of London on May 1, provided a full text of the six new documents to the Los Angeles Times.
Portions of the documents, all labeled "secret" or "confidential," have appeared previously in two British newspapers, the Times and the Telegraph. Blair's government has not challenged their authenticity.
The documents present a picture of a U.S. government fed up with the policy of containing Iraq, skeptical of the United Nations and focused on ousting Saddam.
One memorandum, from Foreign Office political director Peter Ricketts to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on March 22, 2002, bluntly stated that the case against Saddam was weak, because he was not accelerating his weapons programs and there was scant proof of links to al-Qaida.
Ricketts said that other countries such as Iran appeared closer to getting nuclear weapons and that arguing for regime change in Iraq alone did not "stack up."
"It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam," he wrote.
Only one option
The new documents include a 10-page options paper, dated March 8, 2002, from the overseas and defense secretariat of the Cabinet Office, sketching out options for dealing with Iraq. The thrust of the memo was that the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War were likely to fail, and that, in any case, the United States had already given up on them.
"The U.S. has lost confidence in containment," the document said. "Some in government want Saddam removed. The success of Operation Enduring Freedom (in Afghanistan), distrust of U.N. sanctions and inspection regimes, and unfinished business from 1991 are all factors."
"Washington believes the legal basis for an attack already exists. Nor will it necessarily be governed by wider political factors. The U.S. may be willing to work with a smaller coalition than we think desirable," it said.
The document appeared to rule out any action in Iraq short of an invasion. "In sum, despite the considerable difficulties, the use of overriding force in a ground campaign is the only option that we can be confident will remove Saddam and bring Iraq back into the international community," it said.