Rusmfeld and Hoon
Donald Rumsfeld and Geoff Hoon in the latter’s office in the Old War Office Building on London’s Whitehall on June 5, 2002.

We left Tony Blair at Crawford agreeing with President Bush that Britain would take military action against Iraq. The British Prime Minister didn’t waste any time sorting out what would happen next. Chilcot records that the very next day, 8 April 2002, Geoff Hoon, the UK Defence Secretary, called in Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Sir Michael Boyce  (now Lord Boyce) and the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) Sir Kevin Tebbit to discuss “military options” in Iraq.[1]

Ten days later, Air Marshal Brian Burridge, Deputy Commander of RAF Strike Command, was sent to the US to act as liaison with General Tommy Franks, commander of the US Central Command, who would lead the invasion force. Now Sir Brian, he told the Chilcot Inquiry that he had a meeting with Gen. Franks shortly after arriving at Central Command’s headquarters in Tampa, Florida, discussing the no-fly zones “at some length”.[2]

Nine days later, on 26 April, Franks flew to London with Burridge for discussions with the UK defence chiefs. The Chilcot Report says they talked about the patrols of the no-fly zones with details of the discussions “circulated on very limited distribution”.[3]

A week later, there was a top secret meeting in 10, Downing St chaired by Blair and attended by Hoon, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Adm. Boyce. The Chilcot Report notes briefly that ‘Mr Blair had a meeting on Iraq with Mr Straw, Mr Hoon and Adm. Boyce on 2 May but there is no record of the discussion.’[4]

It’s worth pointing out that the Downing Street note which describes that key meeting in such brazenly bare detail was initially provided to the Butler Inquiry which first looked at the intelligence provided to back the war in Iraq in 2004. So the cover-up goes back at least to then and in reality far beyond.

Three days later, Donald Rumsfeld, US Defence Secretary, flew to London for talks with Mr Hoon, following which British officials announced changes to the rules of engagement in the no-fly zones making it easier for allied aircraft to attack Iraqi military positions.[5]

Simon Webb, then MoD policy director, told the Chilcot inquiry that the Americans had proposed “changing the nature of the no-fly zone, quite a lot of which we were persuaded about but which a part of we weren’t persuaded about … and stood aside from”.[6]

As one of the MoD’s most senior civil servants, Webb was spouting the sort of double-speak of which the writers of BBC Television’s Yes, Minister would have been very proud. The key words there are not “stood aside from” but “quite a lot of which we were persuaded about”.

On 20 May 2002, allied aircraft began ramping up the number of attacks on Iraqi positions.[7] Throughout the first few months of 2002, they had dropped barely any bombs on Iraq. But answers to parliamentary questions asked by Liberal Democrat MP Sir Menzies Campbell (now Lord Campbell), reveal that during those last ten days of May alone, US and UK aircraft patrolling the southern no-fly zone dropped 7.3 tonnes of bombs on Iraqi positions.

Far from standing aside, as Webb claimed in his testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry, RAF aircraft dropped more than two thirds of those bombs, a total of 4.9 tonnes.[8]

Throughout this period, both British and US aircraft continued to bomb southern Iraq under cover of the no-fly zone while Blair and Hoon insisted that nothing was happening. The Defence Secretary told a cabinet meeting on 20 June 2002 that “except for continuing patrols in the no-fly zones, no decisions have been taken in relation to military operations in Iraq.”[9]

During defence questions in the House of Commons on Monday 15 July 2002, Hoon told Labour MP Alice Mahon that: ‘Absolutely no decisions have been taken by the British Government in relation to operations in Iraq or anywhere near Iraq … I can assure the House that any such decision would be properly reported to the House.’[10]

The next day, Blair appeared before the Parliamentary Liaison Committee. Asked if the UK was “preparing for possible military action against Iraq”, Blair replied: “No, there are no decisions which have been taken about military action.”[11]

That of course was a lie. Read the rest of the evidence in Part III

[1] Chilcot Report, Section 3.3, Development of UK Strategy and Options, April to July 2002, para. 9, citing: Minute Watkins to PSO/CDS and PS/PUS, 8 April 2002, ‘Iraq’.

[2] Burridge testimony to Iraq Inquiry, 8 December 2009

[3] Chilcot Report, Section 6.1, Development of the Military Options for an Invasion of Iraq, paras. 213 and 215, citing Minute SECCOS to PS/SofS [MOD] and others, 30 April 2002, ‘Record of CINCCENTCOM meeting with COS – 26 April 2002’, and Minute Drummond to Manning, 26 April 2002, ‘Meeting with General Franks’.

[4] Chilcot Report, Section 3.3, Development of UK Strategy and Options, April to July 2002, para. 58, citing: Internal No.10 note prepared for Mr Blair’s appearance at the Butler Inquiry.

[5] Hoon press conferences. Off the record briefing by MoD officials, 5 May 2002

[6] Ministry of Defence, 2001 to 2004, Transcript of evidence to Chilcot Inquiry  from Simon Webb, 24 November 2009, pp151 & 155

[7] US warplanes strike Iraq, Daily Telegraph, 20 May 2002

[8] Hansard 27 Nov 2002 : Column 330W

[9] Chilcot Report, Section 3.3, Development of UK Strategy and Options, April to July 2002, para. 129

[10] Chilcot Report, Section 3.3, Development of UK Strategy and Options, April to July 2002, para.198, citing Hansard, House of Commons, Official Report, 15 July 2002, column 10.

[11] Chilcot Report, Section 3.3, Development of UK Strategy and Options, April to July 2002, para. 205, citing Minutes, Liaison Committee (House of Commons), 16 July 2002, [Evidence Session], Q 94.