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'Pacifist' Powell a key cog in Blair's Iraq war machine

By Eamonn McCann

Published 28/10/2015

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair

There's near-unanimity everywhere that Tony Blair's "apology" for his role in the Iraq War won't wash. His statement to CNN last Saturday - "I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong" - wasn't an apology at all. Blair was claiming he'd acted innocently on information which turned out to be inaccurate. This is not true.

The inaccuracies were the work of his own closest associates. Among those centrally involved was his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, recently to be seen in Belfast, acting the peacemaker.

Blair knows he'll be sharply criticised in the imminent Chilcot Report into how the war came about. The CNN interview will have been intended as a pre-emptive strike.

The report has repeatedly been delayed for "Maxwellisation" - whereby individuals subject to criticism in official reports are shown the relevant passages prior to publication and invited to comment. (The procedure arose from a 1969 case taken by media tycoon and crook Robert Maxwell against the Department of Trade for not giving him notice of a report which denounced him as unfit to run a public company.) So Blair knows what's coming.

Last week saw publication of an April 2002 memorandum directly relevant to Blair's role. The memo, from Secretary of State Colin Powell to George W Bush, was intended to brief the president for a "summit" with Blair at Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch.

The document outlined the lengths to which Blair would go to back Bush if the US decided on an invasion: "He will present to you (Bush) the strategic, tactical and public affairs lines that he believes will strengthen the global support for our common cause."

At the time, both the US and the British governments were insistent that there was no plan to go to war, that a diplomatic strategy was still being pursued.

Former Conservative front bencher David Davis commented: "Judging from this memorandum, Blair signed up for the Iraq War even before the Americans themselves did. It beggars belief."

The UK's ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, was with Blair at Crawford but, as he explained in 2003 to Judge Hutton's inquiry into the death by apparent suicide of weapons expert Dr David Kelly, he "took no part in any of the discussions". Meyer could not say "what degree of convergence (on Iraq policy) was signed in blood, if you like, at the Crawford ranch".

Kelly had been the source for BBC reports that Blair's Press office, headed by Alastair Campbell, had exaggerated the intelligence services' estimation of Saddam Hussein's readiness to attack British targets with chemical and biological weapons. Downing Street erupted in anger. The BBC backed down. Director-General Greg Dyke resigned.

But the only thing the BBC got wrong was that it had been Powell, not Campbell, who had taken the lead in "sexing up" the intelligence reports. Five months after the Crawford meeting, in September 2002, Blair and aides were compiling a dossier to persuade MPs to back military action.

The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) - MI5, MI6, GCHQ and military intelligence - had assessed that Saddam would use chemical and biological weapons (CBW) if he believed his regime was about to be attacked. This was no good to Blair.

On September 17, 2002, Powell emailed JIC chairman John Scarlett: "The document does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat, from Saddam Hussein ... It shows that he has the means, but it does not demonstrate he has the motive to attack his neighbours, let alone the West."

On September 19, Scarlett received another email from Powell, copied to Campbell: "The statement on page 19 that Saddam is prepared to use chemical and biological weapons 'if he believes his regime is under threat' is a bit of a problem. It backs up the ... argument that there is no CBW threat and we will only create one if we attack him. I think you should redraft the para."

Scarlet (promoted to head of MI6 in 2004) complied. Five days later, on September 24, Blair told the Commons that the JIC had reported to him that Saddam had both the capacity and willingness to attack the West with CBW.

In 2011, one author of the JIC assessment, Major General Michael Laurie, wrote uninvited to Chilcot to say: "The purpose of the dossier was precisely to make a case for war, rather than setting out the available intelligence."

This was a huge moment in the procurement of a war which left hundreds of thousands dead and turned Iraq into a hell-on-earth.

And yet the loyalist paramilitary leaders who held talks on war and peace with Powell over the past 18 months are depicted as bad characters who will have to prove their peaceful bona fides, while Powell is projected as a great man altogether for having agreed to talk to them.

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