Iraqi regime change was not UK priority: ex-FM

2nd February 2011, Comments 0 comments

Ex-foreign minister Jack Straw told Britain's Iraq war inquiry Wednesday that removing Saddam Hussein had never been London's priority, as he gave evidence on the final day of the probe's public hearings.

Straw, who was foreign secretary when Britain joined the US-led invasion in 2003, insisted containment of the Iraqi dictator had been the British government's main goal.

"Containment remained the overall strategy of the government right up to the time when we took the decision to use military action," he said during his third appearance before the official inquiry.

"Regime change was never an objective of the British government," Straw added.

If Saddam had agreed to cooperate and disarm he would have "stayed in post," added the former Labour minister, who stepped down from frontline politics last year after three decades.

Iraq became a burning issue when then US president George W. Bush gave his State of the Union address towards the end of January in 2002, in which he labelled Iraq, Iran and North Korea an "axis of evil."

"I happened to be in Washington that day and could sense the sort of game change that his statement led to," said Straw.

Former prime minister Tony Blair last month told the inquiry that the Bush administration was already set on a policy of regime change in Iraq by the time the two leaders met at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas in April 2002.

"It was obviously going to be on the agenda. I was always going to make it clear, I did make it clear, we would be shoulder to shoulder with America," Blair told the inquiry during a second appearance last month.

Since hearings began in central London in November 2009, the panel has heard from more than 120 witnesses in public including former prime ministers Blair and Gordon Brown.

A cast of diplomats, spy chiefs, spin doctors and senior ministers have all testified, reviving passions over what was a deeply unpopular conflict in Britain.

Straw is among a small number of witnesses -- including Blair -- who have been recalled to clarify earlier evidence.

Blair, prime minister from 1997 to 2007, has been the star witness at the inquiry. He drew criticism at his first hearing in January last year when he said he had "no regret" about removing Saddam.

In his appearance last month, he insisted that he did regret the loss of life in the conflict.

Blair, now Middle East peace envoy, also warned the world would have to use force to curb Iran's nuclear drive.

"This is a looming and coming challenge," he said. "At some point, we've got to get our head out of the sand."

The inquiry had originally hoped to publish its final report around the start of this year. But inquiry chair John Chilcot has warned "it will take time" to complete.

The inquiry, aimed at learning lessons from the Iraq war, was launched after the withdrawal of British troops from the country in July 2009.

Its members have visited Iraq, the United States and France as part of their probe and have met with the families of British troops killed in Iraq.

The evidence touched on issues including evidence on supposed weapons of mass destruction, the supply of military equipment and Iraq's descent into chaos following the invasion.

© 2011 AFP

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