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Knight Ridder

Classified papers indicate an early decision for war

BYLINE: WARREN P. STROBEL; Knight Ridder Newspapers


Highly classified documents leaked in Britain appear to provide new evidence that President Bush and his national security team decided to invade Iraq much earlier than they have acknowledged and marched to war without dwelling on the potential perils.

The half-dozen memos and option papers, written by top aides to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, buttress previous on-the-record accounts that portray Bush and his advisers as predisposed to oust Saddam Hussein when they took office - and determined to do it at all costs after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Blair is Bush's closest global partner, and the documents, startlingly frank at times, were never meant to become public.

Now they have rocketed around the Internet and been seized on by opponents of the Iraq war as evidence that the president and his administration were not leveling with the American people about their war preparations.

By mid-March 2002, a year before the invasion of Iraq, top British officials were already so resigned to a war that they seemed preoccupied mostly with building international support and finding a legal justification.

That was just six weeks after Bush declared Iraq a member of the "axis of evil."

Arguing a weak case

But Blair's advisers repeatedly expressed concern that the case against Saddam was weak and that the White House wasn't giving nearly enough attention to what would happen after he was toppled.

"The U.S. government's military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace. But as yet, it lacks a political framework. In particular, little thought has been given to creating the political conditions for military action, or the aftermath and how to shape it," stated a July 21, 2002, briefing paper prepared for a meeting of Blair's advisers two days later.

"A post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise," it stated.

Bush and Blair forcefully denied in a news conference this month that they were fixated on war.

"There's nothing farther from the truth. My conversations with the prime minister were how can we do this peacefully," Bush said. "We worked hard to figure out how we could do this peacefully."

Neither the U.S. government nor the British government has disputed the memos' authenticity.

The release of the documents comes at a bad time for Bush. He faces growing congressional and public unease after 27 months of war in Iraq. Opinion polls show public support for the Iraq war at or near all-time lows.

Exact date unknown

Precisely when Bush made an irrevocable decision to invade Iraq remains murky.

"We still don't know - and this is not unusual - exactly when the presidential decision was made," said journalist James Mann, author of "Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet."

The White House maintains it tried to avert war almost until the last minute.

Despite the outcry over the British documents, which have come to be known as the "Downing Street memos," much of what they say was known - or knowable - at the time, Mann said.

It's well documented that Bush began looking at military options for overthrowing Saddam's regime as early as November 2001, with formal military planning beginning early in 2002.

Knight Ridder, for example, reported on Feb. 13, 2002, that the president had decided in principle on overthrowing the Iraqi leader and ordered "a combination of military, diplomatic and covert steps" to achieve that goal.

Six days later, then-Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., visited U.S. Central Command headquarters and, Graham said in a memoir, was told by Gen. Tommy Franks that despite ongoing operations in Afghanistan, "military and intelligence personnel are being redeployed to prepare for an action in Iraq." Franks denied making the comment.

Richard Haass, the State Department's director of policy planning, told an interviewer that in an early July 2002 chat with then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, he questioned putting Iraq at the center of the U.S. war against terrorism. He said Rice advised him "essentially, that that decision's been made, don't waste your breath."



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