LONDON // The military threat posed by Saddam Hussein to the Gulf and wider world was the sole reason for Britain joining the invasion of Iraq, the foreign secretary at the time claimed yesterday. Jack Straw, Tony Blair's foreign secretary and now the UK's justice secretary, conceded during his evidence to the inquiry in London into the Iraq War that regime change might have been high on the US agenda in the wake of the September 11 attacks, but insisted that it was not on the UK's.
But Mr Straw also accepted that, from early 2002, "there was no secret whatever" that US military action against Iraq was possible and that Britain would probably back it in order to "stay close" to America. Describing his decision to support the invasion as "the most difficult I have ever faced in my life", Mr Straw - the first serving government minister to give evidence to the inquiry - said that he knew that, if he refused to back it, Mr Blair would not be able to carry either the cabinet or parliament with him.
"I was fully aware that my support for military action was critical," he told the five-member panel, chaired by Sir John Chilcot. "If I had refused that, the UK's participation in the military action would not, in practice, have been possible. "There almost certainly would have been no majority in either cabinet or in the Commons. "I made my choice. I have never backed away from it, and I do not intend to do so, and fully accept the responsibilities that flow from that.
"I believed at the time, and I still believe, that we made the best judgments we could have done in the circumstances." Mr Straw accepted that the failure to find any of the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam supposedly possessed had undermined faith in the reasons for the 2003 invasion. "Above all, there has been the grave loss of life of our military personnel and civilians, others in the coalition, and many thousands of Iraqis. I deeply regret this," he said.
But he said the decision on military action was based on the best information available, though it still posed a "profoundly difficult moral as well as political dilemma". Mr Straw added: "My starting point on the assessment of the threat was what was publicly known about Iraq's WMD [weapons of mass destruction] programmes, and its behaviour going back more than a dozen years. "It was that judgment - not intelligence - which lay at the heart of the UK government's strategy for disarming Iraq, by diplomacy backed by the potential use of force."
Mr Straw told the inquiry that it was never British policy to achieve regime change, although he accepted that, by embarking on military action, that might well emerge as the result. He said overthrowing Saddam had been part of official US policy since an act of Congress signed by the former president Bill Clinton in 1998. But Mr Straw said that it was only after September 11 that the Americans decided to do something about it.
"We did not share the policy of regime change as a purpose of our foreign policy with the United States," Mr Straw said. "It was not our policy in 2002. It was not our policy in 2003. There would have been no legal base for it ever to be our policy." Mr Straw said that prior to Mr Blair's meeting with George W Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002, British government ministers had discussed how best to "handle" Washington's demand for regime change.
"That was off the agenda as far as the UK was concerned. A foreign policy objective of regime change I regard as improper and also self-evidently unlawful," he said. "It had no chance of being a runner in the UK. It certainly would not have got my support. "The case therefore stood or fell on whether Iraq posed a threat to international peace and security by reason of its weapons of mass destruction."
Mr Straw accepted that it was an "error" for the British government to publish a controversial dossier in 2002 that gave the impression that Iraq could launch WMD missiles within 45 minutes. "Plainly that reference should have been much more precise because it only ever referred in the intelligence to battlefield weapons," he said. "That was an error and it is an error that has haunted us ever since."
Mr Straw - whose tone is expected to be echoed by Mr Blair when he gives evidence to the inquiry next Friday - said that he had genuinely believed that the strategy agreed with the US in September 2002, to disarm Saddam through the UN could have succeeded in avoiding war. "We were embarked on a strategy which, in my view, could easily have led to the peaceful resolution of this dispute. "That was fundamentally the approach of the British government," he said.