I spent a couple of hours at the Chilcot inquiry yesterday where Hans Blix was talking.
Like many people, I had understood that Blix thought Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction in early 2003 – encouraged by headlines such as this one in January: Hanx Blix warned Tony Blair Iraq may not have WMD.
The Blix position is in fact much more nuanced.
Yesterday he said he told Tony Blair one month before the Iraq invasion that he thought Saddam Hussein may still have illegal weapons in spite of his growing doubts on the matter.
Mr Blix told the Iraq inquiry that he had at that point become increasingly concerned about the credibility of western intelligence. He told Mr Blair in February 2003 that it would be “paradoxical” if Britain and the US invaded Iraq with 250,000 men only to find “very little” there.
Yet he told the then UK prime minister during the private conversation: “I said I still thought there were prohibited items in Iraq.”
Mr Blix also revealed that in late 2002, only a few months earlier, he had told Mr Blair that he “felt that Iraq had retained weapons of mass destruction”.
It seemed “plausible” to him especially in relation to anthrax stocks, he recalled. An Australian UN inspector had found evidence of anthrax reserves in Iraq which seemed “very convincing”, he said.
In other words, the Blix stance is rather less black and white than the media have sometimes portrayed him.
Where he does seem to be more unequivocal is his belief that the US moved almost inexorably towards war because it was “high on military”. He criticised the short time his Unmovic inspection team was given to search for WMD.
He also opposed the US national security strategy, published in September 2002, which set out the Bush administration’s belief in its right to launch pre-emptive attacks. That trampled on the historic UN precedent, he argued: “The US in 2002, that time you refer to, threw it overboard.”
Progress to war was almost unstoppable by early 2003 and the UK was a “prisoner on that train”, he said.
Mr Blix said he was in favour of resolution 1441, passed on November 8 2002, which declared Iraq in ”material breach” of its obligations to disarm and paved the way for the return of weapons inspectors.
“The declaration, I felt, might give Iraq a chance for a new start,” he said. ”If they had weapons, which I thought might well be the case, they had an opportunity. Now here it is, they could put the blame on some general or other.”
Unfortunately for the Iraqis it turned out to be impossible for them to declare any such weapons – given that they did not have them.