Sunday, September 19, 2004

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair was warned a year before invading Iraq that a stable post-war government would be impossible without keeping large numbers of troops there for “many years,” secret government papers reveal.

The documents, seen by the Daily Telegraph, show more clearly than ever the grave reservations expressed by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw over the consequences of a second Gulf war and how prescient his Foreign Office officials were in predicting the ensuing chaos.

Mr. Straw predicted in March 2002 that post-war Iraq would cause major problems, telling Mr. Blair in a letter marked “Secret and personal” that no one had a clear idea of what would happen afterward. “There seems to be a larger hole in this than anything.”

Most of the U.S. assessments argued for regime change as a means of eliminating Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Straw said.

“But no one has satisfactorily answered how there can be any certainty that the replacement regime will be any better. Iraq has no history of democracy, so no one has this habit or experience.”

Senior ministerial advisers warned bluntly in a “Secret UK Eyes Only” options paper that “the greater investment of Western forces, the greater our control over Iraq’s future, but the greater the cost and the longer we would need to stay.”

The paper, compiled by the Cabinet Office Overseas and Defense Secretariat, added: “The only certain means to remove Saddam and his elite is to invade and impose a new government, but this would involve nation-building over many years.”

The documents also show the degree of concern that America was ready to invade Iraq with or without backing from its allies.

Sir David Manning, Mr. Blair’s foreign policy adviser, returned from talks in Washington in mid-March 2002 warning that Mr. Bush “still has to find answers to the big questions,” which included “what happens on the morning after?”

In a letter to the prime minister marked “Secret — strictly personal,” he said: “I think there is a real risk that the administration underestimates the difficulties.

“They may agree that failure isn’t an option, but this does not mean they will necessarily avoid it.”

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