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

"In the end, only Blair and Bush know what they said to each other at Crawford and what they agreed to," said a senior British official. "They spent a long time together with no one else around, which was most unusual."

After his return from Washington, officials and analysts say, Blair sought to unify the fractious elements within his government and party around a policy of coercive diplomacy. "Blair comes back from Crawford with a clear sense that the Americans are preparing for war," said Michael Clarke, director of the International Policy Institute at King's College, who met with policymakers at key points during the year. "But the British approach is slightly different -- that we are preparing for war as a means of forcing Iraq to comply so that we don't actually have to fight."

By the early summer of 2002, officials said, there was a new sense of alarm and concern in London. The Bush administration had not committed to seeking U.N. support, and U.S. forces were increasing flyovers and other military activities that officials feared could be provocative. Meanwhile, opinion polls were showing that a majority of Britons opposed military action and 160 members of Parliament had signed a proposed resolution urging caution.

Several senior officials were dispatched to the United States for consultations. When they returned to London, a meeting was scheduled that produced two more secret documents. The first was a Cabinet Office briefing paper dated July 21 that expressed concern that stepped-up U.S. air raids inside Iraq created "the risk that military action is precipitated in an unplanned way."

The briefing paper also said that a Security Council resolution setting up the return of U.N. inspectors to Iraq could be drafted in a way that Hussein would find unacceptable. "It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject (because he is unwilling to accept unfettered access) and which would not be regarded as unreasonable by the international community," the memo reported.

On July 23, officials gathered at Blair's office. Among them were Straw; Manning; Richard Dearlove, chief of Britain's MI6 intelligence agency; Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon; Attorney General Peter Goldsmith; and Adm. Michael Boyce, chief of the Defense Staff.

Dearlove, a veteran intelligence operative with a reputation for being hard-nosed and ambitious, had just returned from a visit to Washington, where officials say he met with Rice and CIA Director George J. Tenet.

According to the July 23 memo, Dearlove reported "a perceptible shift in attitude" in Washington. "Military action was now seen as inevitable," the memo said, adding that the president's National Security Council "had no patience with the U.N. route." Dearlove also included the observation that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Straw, who was consulting daily with his American counterpart, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, reiterated that "it seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided," according to the memo. But, Straw added, "the case was thin." He urged the government to produce a plan for an ultimatum to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Iraq.

The memo indicates that officials believed Iraq had such weapons. What would happen, asked Boyce, if Hussein "used WMD on day one" of an attack, or on Kuwait? "Or on Israel," Hoon added.

It also suggests that the purpose of British pressure to return to the United Nations was not to settle the crisis peacefully through the inspection system, but to build a legal justification for war. Blair is cited as saying that "it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the U.N. inspectors."

Back to the U.N.

Blair had an ally in Powell, who was also counseling that another approach had to be made to the United Nations before an international coalition could be assembled to back the use of military force.

When Blair sat down with Bush at Camp David on Sept. 7, 2002, the president told him he had decided to seek a Security Council resolution demanding Iraqi compliance. Blair looked greatly relieved, according to Bob Woodward's book, "Plan of Attack," which was published last year. But then Bush looked Blair in the eye and warned that dealing with the Iraqi threat would still likely entail war.

"I'm with you," Blair replied, according to Woodward's book.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003. Many inside the British policy establishment still feel angry and bruised about the invasion and its aftermath. Analysts say the leak of the documents shows the depth of those feelings.

"No doubt from the British point of view Iraq has been a strategic blunder -- not just a mistake, but a mistake that we're still paying for," said Clarke, of King's College. "Still, while no one in government would ever say it, the rationale from the British point of view is that our strategic relationship with the U.S. is more important than any single campaign we fight on its behalf. The basic calculation was: Right or wrong, it is in our interest to stand with the United States."

Staff writer Walter Pincus in Washington contributed to this report.

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