British inquiry into Iraq war continues

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MARCO WERMAN: This is the World. I'm Marco Werman. Americans still have questions about the decision to go to war in Iraq. Some wonder what intelligence the Bush Administration had on the regime in Baghdad and whether it was entirely truthful in what it told the public about that information. Still, there have been no high level government investigations of the process. There have been in Britain though, including one that started this week. Today's star witness was Christopher Meyer, Britain's Ambassador to the United States at the time. The World's Laura Lynch reports from London.

LAURA LYNCH: In often colorful language, Meyer revisited the dramatic days between September 11, 2001 and the March, 2003 invasion of Iraq. He told the inquiry former Prime Minister Tony Blair set the tone. Within hours of the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, he vowed to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States. Working the diplomatic circuit in the U.S. capitol, Meyer noticed an immediate impact.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: To be Ambassador to the United States of America was, make no bones about it, a heady and exhilarating experience because wherever you went, people would rise to their feet and give you a storming round of applause. So you had to be careful not to be swept away by this stuff.

LYNCH: Meyer was as close to the center of power in Washington as any foreign diplomat could be. On the evening of September 11, he says he spoke to George W. Bush's national security advisor, Condoleeza Rice. Until that day, Iraq was low on the list of priorities for the White House. But he says Rice's comments showed the attacks had moved it and Saddam Hussein all the way up to the top.

MEYER: And she said well there's no doubt this has been an Al Quaida operation but at the end of the conversation, as we're just looking to see whether there could possibly be any connection to Saddam Hussein. And that was the very first time, on the day itself, that I heard the name of the Iraqi leader mentioned in the context of 9/11.

LYNCH: Other British officials testified yesterday they weren't convinced of any link but Bush and Blair were developing a close working relationship and Meyer says that he began to sense a change after Blair visited Bush at his ranch in Texas in April of 2002.

MEYER: The two men were alone in the ranch until dinner on Saturday night where all the advisors, including myself, turned up. So I'm not entirely clear, to this day, I know what the cabinet often says for what were the results of the meeting but to this day, I'm not entirely clear what degree of convergence was, if you like, signed in blood at the Crawford Ranch.

LYNCH: The next day the former ambassador noticed that Blair spoke about regime change for the first time, in a key foreign policy speech that touched on terrorism and the situation in Iraq.

TONY BLAIR: If necessary, the action should be military and again if necessary and justified, it should involve regime change.

LYNCH: From then on, Meyer says the UK/US alliance was tighter and the march to war seemed inevitable. In fact, he told the inquiry that the military timetable meant there wasn't enough time to do a proper hunt for evidence of any stockpile of chemical or biological weapons.

MEYER: We found ourselves scrambling for the smoking gun, which is another way of saying it's not like Saddam now has to prove he's innocent. We've now bloody well got to try and prove he's guilty.

LYNCH: Meyer's ringside seat in Washington gave him what he believes was a pretty good view of the in-fighting in the Bush Administration. But over time, the drum beats of war grew ever louder and he criticizes his own government, saying Britain didn't push the White House nearly enough to draw up post-invasion plans. He says it was like a black hole. Meyer recalled sitting with then-Vice President, Dick Cheney, on the day the British Parliament was debating whether to support the invasion. Meyer says he tried to explain to Cheney the political difficulties Blair was facing.

MEYER: And his reaction was quite dismissive. Well, you know, once you get by your political problem and we get to Baghdad, then we'll be greeted with cheers and flowers or whatever by the population and all this will be history.

LYNCH: Blair himself isn't saying anything about the revelations that have come out at the inquiry in the first three days. But one of his closest allies in the cabinet back then, Lord Charles Falconer, is defending Blair. He says there's no chance he made a pact with Bush to remove Saddam as early as the spring of 2002.

LORD CHARLES FALCONER: No, I didn't and that's right. And I think the evidence that Christopher Meyer gave this morning made it clear that one of the things that the British government and Tony Blair had been influential in doing was ensuring that America did go down the United Nations route and indeed as a result of today's persuasion, on the fourteenth of September, 2002, President Bush made a very impressive speech to the UN, making it clear that he was looking to the UN to deal with the issue. So I think far from it being fixed in advance, it was clear the matter was to be decided by the UN.

LYNCH: Tony Blair paid a heavy price back home for his support of both Bush and the war. In three days of hearings, Blair's decisions back then have come under fresh scrutiny, guaranteeing he'll have much to answer to when he testifies early next year. For The World, I'm Laura Lynch in London.