Iraq inquiry hears about Blair shift on regime change

LONDON, Nov 26 (Reuters) - George W. Bush and Tony Blair appeared to have "converged" on regime change in Iraq after talks at the U.S. president's Texas ranch in April 2002, a former British ambassador to Washington said on Thursday.

Christopher Meyer, ambassador to the United States between 1997 and 2003, said private one-to-one talks between Bush and the then British Prime Minister seemed to mark an important point on the route to the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"I know what the Cabinet Office says were the results of the meeting but to this day I am not entirely clear what degree of convergence was, if you like, signed in blood at the Crawford ranch," Meyer told a British inquiry into the Iraq war.

Meyer said comments that Blair made after the Texas meeting seemed to signal that his views on whether to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had moved towards Bush's stand.

"There are clues in the speech that Tony Blair gave the next day ... To the best of my knowledge, I may be wrong, this was the first time that Tony Blair had said in public 'regime change'," Meyer said.

"What he was trying to do was to draw the lessons of 9/11 and apply them to the situation in Iraq which led -- I think not inadvertently but deliberately -- to a conflation of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein."

Speaking to the inquiry in London on its third day, Meyer said: "When I heard that speech, I thought that this represents a tightening of the UK/U.S. alliance and a degree of convergence on the danger that Saddam Hussein presented."

Some U.S. officials had argued that there were possible links between Saddam and al Qaeda, which was blamed for masterminding the 2001 attacks on the United States. However, these suggestions have since been discredited.

A five-member inquiry team, headed by former civil servant John Chilcot is examining the reasons for British participation in the 2003 invasion and the subsequent occupation of Iraq, promising a thorough and rigorous probe of events.

Of the Crawford talks when the two leaders spent much of the time alone without advisers, Meyer said: "They weren't there to talk about containment or sharpening sanctions. There had been a sea change in attitudes in the U.S. administration to which the British government ... from October onwards had to adapt and make up its mind where it stood."

Meyer said that on Sept. 11, 2001, he spoke to Condoleezza Rice, then Bush's national security adviser, who said there was no doubt the attack on America was an al Qaeda operation and agencies were looking into possible connections with Iraq. Meyer noted the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 signed by President Bill Clinton declared U.S. policy as one of supporting efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein.

"Regime change was the formal policy of the United States of America. It didn't necessarily mean an armed invasion at that time of Iraq," said Meyer.

The former ambassador said that the "unforgiving nature" of the military timetable for an invasion of Iraq in 2003 did not give time for U.N. weapons inspectors led by Hans Blix to do their job in Iraq.

"It was impossible to see how Blix could bring the inspection process to a conclusion, for better or worse, by March," Meyer said.

"... you had to short-circuit the inspection process by finding the notorious smoking gun ... We found ourselves scrabbling for the smoking gun, which was another way of saying 'it's not that Saddam has to prove that he's innocent, we've now bloody well got to try and prove that he's guilty.'"

"And we -- the Americans, the British -- have never really recovered from that because of course there was no smoking gun."

(Editing by David Stamp)

London bureau, 020 7542 7947