Tony Blair government grappled with plan to bring 'thoroughly bad' Saddam Hussein to heel

Newly released UK state papers show the Blair government's opening gambits against the Iraqi dictator

Tony Blair, elected British prime minister in 1997, faced an early foregin affairs challenge from Saddam Hussein. AP
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Tony Blair’s new government agonised over the military options to bring Saddam Hussein “to his knees” six years before he was eventually ousted in the US-led invasion of Iraq, newly released UK government documents reveal today.

The previously secret Downing Street papers show how officials sought to balance the threat of Saddam with rising fears of Islamist extremism, questions about the legality of military action and the difficulties of keeping a western coalition together.

Other papers released showed how Mr Blair and then US President Bill Clinton bonded and how he tried to stop South Africa's Nelson Mandela commenting on the Lockerbie bombing trial.

The problems of formulating a coherent approach meant that Saddam Hussein continually breached UN resolutions without fear of significant retaliation from the US. Saddam was “laughing at Washington”, German chancellor Helmut Kohl told Mr Blair during a private 20-minute phone call in November 1997, the documents show.

One British military briefing from November 1997 detailed what could be achieved with force against Iraq following a request by Downing Street to examine the options.

The briefing suggested a “package” of targets including air defences, elite Republican Guard headquarters, intelligence targets, suspected weapons sites, and command and control centres.

A scribbled note in the margins, apparently from Mr Blair, asked: “Would this bring Saddam to his knees?”

The briefing note is topped with a message to Mr Blair from John Holmes, his principal private secretary. “Personally I think the conclusions are on the optimistic side about how much force is needed to make Saddam back down.”

Mr Blair, who came to power in a landslide election win in 1997, inherited Saddam Hussein as one of his thorniest foreign policy dilemmas – and one that would become the defining issue of his 10-year leadership.

The papers from 1997 cover the period when Saddam was defying the international community by blocking the work of UN arms inspectors who were trying to ensure that he could not secure weapons of mass destruction to target neighbours and Iraqis.

No-fly zones were in place over parts of Iraq because of his brutal suppression of rebellions after the First Gulf War. Meanwhile a sanctions policy designed to keep Saddam in check was hotly debated among the western powers because of concerns it was having more of an impact on the Iraqi people than on its leadership.

The Blair view of Saddam Hussein was consistently hawkish until the outbreak of war in 2003. “I know we must be cautious but Saddam is thoroughly bad,” said one scribbled note in the margin of a 1997 briefing paper by his defence adviser.

The papers show how the US and UK took the lead in examining military options against Baghdad for its failure to comply with UN resolutions and how they sought to stop Saddam from exploiting their divisions with France and Russia. The two members of the UN Security Council led the demands for a more exhaustive diplomatic approach.

The files released on Tuesday include a letter from Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, to Mr Blair promoting Moscow’s role in forcing Iraq to back down and allow weapons inspectors back into the country.

“Now that all the inspectors have returned to Baghdad it is important that both sides must not slide back again to the road of confrontation,” Mr Yeltsin wrote, a nod to the divisions between the major powers.

British officials in London were also chewing over the implications of the divisions and warned that the emergence of a Franco-Russian axis against an Anglo-American axis “would be disastrous”.

French officials said there was little public appetite in the Arab states for a policy of confrontation with Iraq and warned of what would happen.

“There was a risk that this would play into the hands of Islamist movements in the Middle East and North Africa, with unpredictable consequences for the West,” said Britain’s ambassador to France in a message to London.

Mr Blair has subsequently admitted that the invasion of Iraq was partially responsible for the rise of ISIS but said that toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003 was the right thing to do.

The return of the inspectors was short-lived, with continued interference from Baghdad leading to a complete halt to missions in August 1998.

The UK and US launched Operation Desert Fox in December – a four-day bombing campaign aimed at destroying Iraq’s weapons programmes – which was widely criticised by Arab states and former coalition members from the First Gulf War.

The US made regime change in Iraq an official policy in 1998 and this hardened after the election of George W Bush in 2000, who ordered the 2003 invasion.

An official British inquiry report into the decision to join the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath concluded that the decision was made “before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted”.

Updated: July 20, 2021, 9:44 AM