'IRAQ NOT INITIAL AIM'

LONDON - Relations between Tony Blair and George Bush - and when exactly they agreed to push for regime change in Iraq - was put in the spotlight yesterday.

LONDON - Relations between Tony Blair and George Bush - and when exactly they agreed to push for regime change in Iraq - was put in the spotlight yesterday.

On its fourth day of hearings the British inquiry into the 2003 war also heard about tensions within the US administration shortly after the September 11 attacks.

Britain's former ambassador to Washington, Christopher Meyer, said that toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was not an early priority for then US president Bush, even straight after 9/11.

But in the months following 9/11, splits opened in the US administration over what to do about Iraq, and Blair started to talk publicly about regime change in 2002, Meyer told the Chilcot inquiry in London.

In the early days of the Bush administration Iraq was seen as being like a "grumbling appendix", Meyer said.

While there were concerns over Saddam Hussein there were no plans to take action, despite calls from US neo-conservatives like deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz, he said.

On 9/11 itself, Meyer spoke to Condoleezza Rice, then US national security adviser.

"She said: 'There's no doubt it's an Al-Qaeda operation' but at the end of the conversation, she said 'we're just looking to see whether there could possibly be any connection with Saddam Hussein," he said.

Meyer said the following weekend there was a "big ding dong" at Camp David, Bush's Maryland retreat, when Wolfowitz "argued very strongly" for action against Iraq. "The decision taken that weekend was that the prime concern was with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and Iraq ... had to be set aside for the time being."

There was, though, a "fault line" emerging between secretary of state Colin Powell and vice-president Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Talk of regime change in Iraq in US circles increased and when Blair visited Bush's Texas ranch in April 2002 he publicly endorsed it for the first time. - Sapa-AFP

X