Former Bush aide: US plotted Iraq invasion long before 9/11

Neil Mackay GEORGE Bush's former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill has revealed that the President took office in January 2001 fully intending to invade Iraq and desperate to find an excuse for pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein.

O'Neill's claims tally with long-running investigations by the Sunday Herald which have shown how the Bush cabinet planned a pre- meditated attack on Iraq in order to "regime change" Saddam long before the neoconservative Republicans took power.

The Sunday Herald previously uncovered how a think-tank -- run by vice-president Dick Cheney; defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld; Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld's deputy; Bush's younger brother Jeb, the governor of Florida; and Lewis Libby, Cheney's deputy -- wrote a blueprint for regime change as early as September 2000.

The think-tank, the Project for the New American Century, said, in the document Rebuilding America's Defences: Strategies, Forces And Resources For A New Century, that: "The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein".

The document -- referred to as a blueprint for US global domination -- laid plans for a Bush government "maintaining US global pre- eminence, precluding the rise of a great-power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests". It also said fighting and winning multiple wars was a "core mission".

O'Neill was fired in December 2002 as a result of disagreements over tax cuts. He is the first major Bush administration insider to attack the President. He likened Bush at cabinet meetings to "a blind man in a room full of deaf people", according to excerpts from a CBS interview to be shown today.

"From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go," O'Neill said. "For me, the notion of pre-emption, that the US has the unilateral right to do whatever we decide to do, is a really huge leap."

O'Neill and other White House insiders have given the journalist Ron Suskind documents for a new book, The Price Of Loyalty, revealing that as early as the first three months of 2001 the Bush administration was examining military options for removing Saddam Hussein.

"There are memos," Suskind told CBS. "One of them marked 'secret' says 'Plan for Post- Saddam Iraq'."

Another Pentagon document entitled Foreign Suitors For Iraqi Oil Field Contracts talks about contractors from 40 countries and which ones have interests in Iraq.

O'Neill is also quoted in the new book saying the President was determined to find a reason to go to war and he was surprised nobody on the National Security Council questioned why Iraq should be invaded.

"It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it," said O'Neill. "The President saying, 'Go find me a way to do this.'"

White House spokesman Scott McClellan rejected O'Neill's remarks. He said: "We appreciate his service. While we're not in the business of doing book reviews, it appears that the world according to Mr O'Neill is more about trying to justify his own opinions than looking at the reality of the results we are achieving on behalf of the American people."

11 January 2004