A senior British Army officer described today how he warned Tony Blair two days before the invasion of Iraq that there were insufficient preparations for dealing with the aftermath of the conflict.
Giving evidence to the official inquiry into the war, Major General Tim Cross said he told Mr Blair that he did not believe the post-war planning was “anywhere near ready” and that the situation in the country could be “chaotic”.
Gen Cross said that in the weeks leading up to the invasion he had tried to raise his concerns in both London and Washington, but that his views were “not particularly warmly received” by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
At the same time, he said that planning in Whitehall was hampered by the unwillingness of the Department for International Development (Dfid) to become involved, due to the objections of the then International Development Secretary Clare Short.
Gen Cross – who was attached to the US Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (Orha) which was supposed to manage the aftermath – said that he set out his concerns in a 30 minute meeting with Mr Blair in No 10 on March 18.
“I gave him the background of what we had been doing. We had a very sensible conversation. At the end of it I remember saying in so many words, I had no doubt we will win in the military. I do not believe we are ready for post-war Iraq,” he said.
“He nodded and didn’t say anything particular. I didn’t expect him to look me in the eye and say ’This is terrible, we are going to pull the whole thing off’. I was just one of a number of people briefing him.”
He added: “I hesitate to say I used the word ’disaster’. I may well have used the word ’chaotic’.”
Gen Cross also described a meeting he attended in Washington with US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in which he expressed concern that there would not be enough troops to maintain security following the invasion.
“My views were not particularly warmly received,” he said.
“He and the system had made up their minds how much they were going to fight this campaign so anybody speaking outside that paradigm was not particularly well received.”
He stressed, however, that the Americans could not be blamed for everything that had gone wrong.
While President George Bush did not sign the directive establishing Orha until January 2003, the British did not set up their own Iraq planning unit until February, just a month before the invasion.
“I know that it has become very common for people to blame the Americans. I just don’t accept that. I think that we, the UK and we in Whitehall should have done far more to get our minds around this issue,” he said.
“I just felt this was not being taken sufficiently seriously. There was no minister of Cabinet rank reporting on this and driving this day-to-day.”
He said that there was a reluctance formally to assign British staff to Orha in the run up to the conflict because of concerns about the legal implications.
“I am well aware of the debate that went on about the legality and the reluctance at this stage to be endorsing Orha or formally placing people in Orha on the basis that we, the UK, would become liable under the umbrella of international law,” he said.
Following the invasion, the UK government did not want to take responsibility for Orha in southern Iraq which was the main UK area of operations because of the potential costs.
“I think that the UK were worried that if we were seen to head up Orha in the South we would begin to pick up the bill for reconstruction,” he said.
He said that in particular Dfid under Ms Short – who subsequently resigned over the war – was not “signed up” to the policy on Iraq.
“This was, I am bound to say, unhelpful for me, and it was an early indicator that Whitehall was not much more joined up than Washington,” he said.
“There was a strong reluctance to formally support Orha. We did have Dfid representation, but it was nowhere near sufficient to meet our needs.
“Considering the expected scale of the humanitarian suffering, the projected numbers of (refugees), civilian casualties, etc this was, once again, more than a little disappointing.”
Desmond Bowen, who was the deputy head of the overseas and defence secretariat in the Cabinet Office, told the inquiry that a formal ministerial group on Iraq was not established until the eve of the invasion on March 19.
He admitted that the arrangements were “not ideal” for officials trying to implement the policy.
“There was no formal ministerial group that was run out of No 10. There were ministerial meetings, with what frequency exactly I don’t know,” he said.
“Here we have a government that has been in power for a number of years with a methodology for how it sets about its business. Is it ideal? It is certainly not ideal for officials.”
Mr Bowen said that following the invasion he started a “lessons learned” exercise in the Cabinet Office but had been ordered to drop it by Mr Blair’s foreign policy adviser, David Manning.
“I was told that that was not the right time to bring that forward,” he said.
The inquiry was adjourned until tomorrow.