LONDON (Reuters) -- Britain and the United States appeared to have converged on "regime change" in Iraq after talks at President George W. Bush's Texas ranch in April 2002, a former ambassador to the United States has said.
Sir Christopher Meyer, ambassador to Washington between 1997 and 2003, said private one-to-one talks between then Prime Minister Tony Blair and Bush appeared to mark an important point in the route towards 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 the Iraq War Inquiry.
"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."
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 talks at Bush's ranch in Crawford where 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 on September 11, 2001, he spoke with Condoleezza Rice, then 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 declares U.S. policy to support 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 Smoking Gun'
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." Meyer said delay could have meant a far different outcome.
"If we had planned for military action in the cool autumnal season of 2003 rather than the cool spring season of 2003, a lot of things might have been able to have been unwound," he said.
"The key problem was to have let the military strategy wag the political and diplomatic strategy. It should have been the other way round," he added.
War critics, including relatives of some of the 179 British service personnel killed during the six years of British combat operations which officially ended at the end of April this year, have long called for an inquiry into the war.
They argue Blair and his team misled the public and distorted intelligence to justify the invasion. Blair, who is due to give evidence himself early next year, sent over 45,000 British troops to topple Saddam Hussein.