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Blair Steady in Support

Blair's style was to have ongoing debates with himself and his small circle of advisers, testing, searching, "weighing things up," as one of his advisers said. On Iraq, Blair had traveled several roads. "Look, if Bush hadn't been exercised after 9/11 about these issues," he told his advisers several times, "I would have been worrying about them, and I raised them with him before 9/11." The issues were terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and Iraq. For years, Blair had warned about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

Of the three countries Bush cited as constituting the "axis of evil," Blair was most worried about North Korea, and he believed Iran was close to developing dangerous WMD stockpiles. Iraq was at the bottom of the list for the prime minister, one adviser said, suggesting Blair was not at this point as driven about Hussein as Bush.

Bush jokes with Blair in February 2001. During talks on Iraq, Bush said he did not want to see Blair's government go down. (Doug Mills -- AP)

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"Iraq is an American question," that adviser added. "It's not a British question. And it couldn't be anybody else's because no one else had the capability." Britain was not setting the military agenda, needless to say. It was out of the question that Britain would ever go it alone. "We couldn't have invaded Iraq."

Blair was keenly aware that in Britain the question was: Does Blair believe in the United Nations? It was critical domestically for the prime minister to show his own Labor Party, a pacifist party at heart, opposed to war in principle, that he had gone the U.N. route. Public opinion in Britain favored trying to make international institutions work before resorting to force. Going through the United Nations would be a large and much-needed plus.

After taking questions from reporters, the two leaders, with Vice President Cheney in attendance, sat down for a private talk. There was no specific war planning. The issue was political strategy.

Blair said he had to be able to show that he had tried the United Nations and sought a new resolution requiring the readmission of weapons inspectors inside Iraq. "He's there to make the case for a resolution," Bush recalled in an interview in December. He told Blair he had decided to go to the United Nations, and it seemed he would seek a new resolution.

Blair was relieved.

Bush looked Blair in the eye. "Saddam Hussein is a threat. And we must work together to deal with this threat, and the world will be better off without him." Bush recalled that he was "probing" and "pushing" the prime minister. He said it might require -- would probably entail -- war. Blair might have to send British troops.

"I'm with you," the prime minister replied, looking Bush back in the eye, pledging flat out to commit British military force if necessary, the critical promise Bush had been seeking.

"We want you to be part of this," he told the prime minister. Blair's resolve had made a real impression, the president later recalled.

After the meeting, Bush walked into the conference room where Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's communications director, and several other Blair aides were waiting.

"Your man has got cojones," the president said, using a colloquial Spanish term for courage.

The president recalled, "And of course these Brits don't know what cojones are." He said he would call the Camp David session with Blair "the cojones meeting."

As a practical matter, by agreeing to the urging of Blair and Powell to go to the United Nations to seek a new resolution, Bush had improved his position immeasurably. It meant that no matter what happened, as long as Blair kept his word, he would not have to go it alone.

An Absolute Political Necessity

Two months later, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1441 unanimously, 15 to 0, requiring new weapons inspections and declaring that if Hussein continued to violate his disarmament obligations, he would face "serious consequences."

The U.N. inspectors went into Iraq, but Bush became frustrated and angry at their lack of progress. In early January 2003, the president secretly decided on war, but he continued to pursue a diplomatic solution publicly.

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