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From Memos, Insights Into Ally's Doubts On Iraq War

Blair did not share their view. His aides contend that in the days immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Blair saw Saddam Hussein's Iraq as a potential danger that needed to be dealt with. But the prime minister faced an entirely different set of obstacles, political and legal, than Bush did, including much stronger domestic opposition to war.

The first major British cabinet discussion on Iraq took place March 7, 2002, according to the memoirs of Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary who quotes several senior cabinet secretaries as raising questions about the war. "What has changed that suddenly gives us the legal right to take military action that we didn't have a few months ago?" demanded David Blunkett, one of Blair's closest political allies.

Blair defended his approach, Cook reported, by saying Britain's national interest lay in staying closely allied with the United States. "I tell you that we must steer close to America," Blair said, according to Cook. "If we don't, we lose our influence to shape what they do."

These themes would be repeated regularly in the first six Downing Street memos, composed between the March 7 cabinet meeting and Blair's trip to Crawford a month later.

The first memo was a 10-page options paper produced by the overseas and defense secretariat of the Cabinet Office the day after the cabinet meeting. It noted that British intelligence on Iraq was poor, that no legal justification currently existed for invasion and that removing Hussein's government "could involve nation building over many years." Still, it concluded: "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."

In his memo to Blair six days later, Manning wrote that "Bush has yet to find the answers to the big questions." The foreign policy adviser raised several matters, including "how to persuade international opinion that military action against Iraq is necessary and justified" and "what happens on the morning after?"

On March 22, Peter Ricketts, then political director of the Foreign Office, wrote to Straw that Blair could also "bring home to Bush some of the realities" and "help Bush make good decisions by telling him things his own machine probably isn't." Ricketts went on to warn that a military campaign would need "clear and compelling military objectives" and that regime change "does not stack up."

"Regime change which produced another Sunni General still in charge of an active Iraqi WMD program would be a bad outcome," Ricketts concluded.

Finally, Straw weighed in with his own memo to Blair laying out the political problems in convincing members of Parliament in the ruling Labor Party that the use of force was justified, legal and would produce the desired result. But even after legal justification, Straw added, "We have also to answer the big question -- what will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole on this than on anything."

A U.S. official who observed the process said British objections followed a traditional path. "To some extent the mandarins were playing the role they were acculturated to play in the Washington-London dialectic, which is always to play devil's advocate," he said. "I'm not saying they were sanguine -- they weren't -- but since time immemorial they have always played Athens to our Rome, working hard to remove us from a tendency toward what they consider impetuosity or misguided idealism."

The Crawford Meeting

At the Crawford summit, in April 2002, Bush and Blair discussed the prospect of going to war in the spring or fall of 2003. According to a Cabinet Office briefing paper prepared in July, Blair told Bush that "the U.K. would support military action to bring about regime change, provided that certain conditions were met: efforts had been made to construct a coalition/shape public opinion, the Israel-Palestine Crisis was quiescent, and the options for action to eliminate Iraq's WMD through U.N. weapons inspectors had been exhausted."

In a post-summit speech at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Tex., Blair offered a cryptic criticism of his own advisers. His commitment to democratic values, Blair said, "means that when America is fighting for those values, then, however tough, we fight with her -- no grandstanding, no offering implausible and impractical advice from the touchline."

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