LONDON - The United States followed its own military timetable for the 2003 invasion of Iraq rather than allowing diplomacy to run its full course, the former British ambassador to the United Nations said on Friday.
Jeremy Greenstock told a British inquiry into the Iraq war that he did not think that U.N. inspectors had been given enough time to search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD), cited as the reason for war, before the March 2003 invasion.
No such weapons were found after the U.S.-led invasion and overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but Greenstock said he remained convinced Iraq was hiding something.
There was a concealment committee established by Iraq and they were very good at it, he told the inquiry.
He said he believed war would probably still have followed if the United States had agreed to delay the use of force until October, but that the campaign would have had greater legitimacy.
Military planners wanted to launch the campaign early enough to avoid fighting during the hot summer months, he said.
In an opening written statement, Greenstock said only U.S. President George W. Bush was in a position to switch off the planning ahead of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The U.S. and the UK had, well before then, decided that the threat from Iraq, which was genuinely perceived as including the potential threat of the use of WMD, could only be terminated either if Saddam Hussein conceded absolutely everything the resolutions demanded or if his regime fell.
If this was to be achieved through a U.N. route, that had to happen on a U.S.-ordained timing, he added.
Greenstock, British ambassador at the United Nations from 1998 to 2003, was appearing on the fourth day of a public inquiry into the invasion and subsequent war in which 179 British soldiers were killed.
RUNNING SORE FOR Labor
Former prime minister Tony Blair, Britain's war leader, is expected to appear before the inquiry early in the new year.
Many supporters of Blair's Labour party were angered by his backing for Bush and the invasion and his appearance risks reopening old wounds ahead of an election due by June.
Opinion polls suggest Labour will lose the grip on power it has had since 1997.
Much of Greenstock's testimony focused on failed efforts to secure a U.N. resolution explicitly backing the use of force against Iraq.
Greenstock said the campaign was not illegal but was of questionable legitimacy because it did not have support of the majority of U.N. members or the majority of Britons.
Greenstock said his Iraqi counterpart Mohammed al-Douri told him on September 20, 2002 in a bilateral meeting that his country did not possess WMD.
He told me that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. That was his view. We were not in a position in any part of the UK government to ascertain for certain whether or not that statement was true, he added.
A five-member inquiry team, headed by former civil servant John Chilcot, is examining the reasons for British participation in Iraq.