Martin Woollacott

The rush of experts and politicians to the microphone this week to finally admit that US and British intelligence estimates of Iraqi weapons holdings were wrong underlines the fact that the invasion of Iraq was not conjured from thin air in the few months before the war began. It did not come about simply because a handful of forceful advocates found themselves in positions of influence in Washington, or merely because the US was looking for a course of action after the twin towers attack. It was also the consequence of a decade-long Anglo-American struggle with Saddam Hussein, one which both the US and the UK inherited from their predecessors.

Aerial attacks and surveillance, coup attempts, economic sanctions, and the Iraqi responses, were aspects of the struggle. But at the core was an intense contest between US and British intelligence and Iraqi counter-intelligence.

The concentration on the interaction between politics and intelligence in the immediate run-up to the invasion has until now obscured the need for an examination of this much longer period of conflict, without the legacy of which, it is reasonable to say, the war could not have happened. President Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and even Geoff Hoon, Britain’s defence secretary, have all recently conceded to one degree or another that the pre-war intelligence was wrong, but none have probed the concepts which shaped US and British policy for many years before a second Iraq war became a possibility.

In Britain, the Hutton report’s rejection of the argument that the available intelligence was exaggerated by politicians may have let

the government off too lightly. But it does have the virtue of showing that the government and intelligence services

had essentially the same mindset on Iraq. That mindset was exemplified by the dead British government scientist, Dr David Kelly.

Hard evidence, such as might be constituted by participants at a high level meeting, was not, as far as is known, ever acquired. This is the critical point: the intelligence assessment of Iraq was fundamentally on an assessment of Saddam’s character.

From the beginning, more so as it preceded, and perhaps entirely so toward the end - a contest also to do with his need not to be seen to be humiliated or worsted, and with his need to outwit those he believed were plotting his downfall. Why otherwise continue to play a shell game when there was nothing, or virtually nothing, under the shells? This thesis has not been disproved.

It is possible that US and British intelligence became essentially a process of sifting information to buttress this view. So deep was the mistrust that the weapons became, in a sense, secondary. Saddam was convinced that Anglo-American policy was aimed at his destruction whether he gave up his weapons or not, and the British and Americans were convinced that Saddam’s motives were so suspect that no renunciation of weapons could ever be taken seriously.

Neither the Hutton report, nor David Kay’s evidence before the Senate armed forces committee, have changed what we know about the beliefs and motives of the US and British governments before the war. We knew then and we know now that they believed he had some minor WMD holdings and expected to find them, or encounter them in battle. They were not lying when they said this, yet it was not the reason they went to war. If that reason was principally to do with weapons, it was to do with weapons not yet made, whose connection with the present was established only on the basis of an assumption about what was in Saddam’s mind. — The Guardian, London