Tony Blair and his Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon were able to claim throughout the summer of 2002 that no decision had been taken on military action because the truth of what was taking place in southern Iraq under cover of the UN-authorised no-fly zones was kept on an extremely tight ‘need to know’ basis. Even fairly senior British officials believed the increased air strikes were simply the result of more Iraqi attacks on allied aircraft.

A week later, on Tuesday 23 July 2002, Blair was due to have a meeting with his war cabinet. In preparation for that meeting, the Cabinet Office produced a briefing paper which was one of the Downing St Memos leaked to me when I was on the Sunday Times. It warned the participants that: ‘When the Prime Minister discussed Iraq with President Bush at Crawford in April he said that the UK would support military action to bring about regime change.’

This had created a problem for British policy makers. ‘We need now to … encourage the US Government to place its military planning within a political framework, partly to forestall the risk that military action is precipitated in an unplanned way by, for example, an incident in the no fly zones,’ the Cabinet Office briefing paper said. ‘This is particularly important for the UK because it is necessary to create the conditions in which we could legally support military action.’[1]

This is all the evidence we need to show that the air war was illegal. Those conditions in which Britain could legally support military action did not yet exist. They had to be created. So although it was clearly unbeknown to the officials who drafted the briefing paper, RAF aircraft and for that matter RAF servicemen were already involved in military action against Iraq which was not legal under the UK interpretation of international law.

The minutes of that war cabinet meeting on 23 July became best known for comments by Sir Richard Dearlove, the then head of MI6, who had just returned from a trip to Washington DC to see his CIA counterpart George Tenet. He told the meeting that the intelligence was being ‘fixed around the policy’ in America.

But Hoon said something even more interesting. US aircraft overflying southern Iraq had begun ‘spikes of activity to put pressure on the regime’. He did not mention that RAF aircraft were also taking part in the attacks. Presumably some of his colleagues in the war cabinet were unaware of that fact and the lack of an official record for the 2 May meeting suggests that both Blair and Hoon thought it sensible not to have the British participation on record.[2]

The attacks continued through June, July and August with both US and British aircraft carried out increased bombing but nevertheless failing to provoke the Iraqis into a reaction which might give the allies an excuse for war.The attacks needed to be ramped up still further.

On 5 September 2002, more than 100 allied aircraft, both US and British, attacked an Iraqi air defence facility in western Iraq on 5 September 2002, in what was believed to be a prelude to the infiltration of special forces into Iraq from Jordan.[3] The RAF saw it as such a success that it was reported on the front page of the official publication RAF News.

During September, allied aircraft dropped 54.6 tonnes of munitions on southern Iraq of which 21.1 tonnes were dropped by RAF aircraft.[4] In October, they dropped 17.7 tonnes of which 11.4 tonnes, roughly two-thirds, were British.[5]

UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which the UK Government would later claim gave authorisation for the war, was not passed until 8 November 2002, six months after the secret air war preparing the way for the ground campaign had begun.

It was not until 17 March 2003 that British Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith ruled for the first time that military action was legal on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 1441. A day later, the British parliament backed UK military action in Iraq.

Two days, later allied troops invaded Iraq. It was and remains widely regarded as the start of the Iraq War. Only a very few people knew that was not the truth. The war had begun ten months earlier on 20 May 2002 when British and American aircraft began bombing the 391 ‘carefully selected’ targets assigned to Operation Southern Force, the illegal joint British and American bombing campaign that Chilcot completely missed.

[1] Cabinet Office Briefing Paper dated 21 July 2002

[2] Text of the minutes of a meeting of the British war cabinet at 10 Downing St on 23 July 2002

[3] 6 September 2002, Daily Telegraph, 100 jets join attack on Iraq

[4] Hansard 27 Nov 2002 : Column 330W

[5] Hansard, 10 Mar 2003, Column 62W