Britain discussed plans to exploit Iraq's oil reserves with some of the world's biggest oil companies five months before it joined the United States in invading the country, the Independent newspaper said on Tuesday.
Citing documents it said were obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by campaigner and author Greg Muttitt, the newspaper said at least five meetings were held between government officials and oil companies BP and Royal Dutch Shell in October and November of 2002.
"Shell and BP could not afford not to have a stake in [Iraq]for the sake of their long-term future," Edward Chaplin, the Foreign Office's former Middle East director was quoted as saying after a meeting with oil groups in October of 2002.
"We were determined to get a fair slice of the action for U.K. companies in a post-Saddam Iraq," he said, according to minutes of the meeting, which could not be independently verified.
A month later, the British Foreign Office invited BP again to discuss opportunities in Iraq "post regime change," the newspaper said.
"BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity," it quoted minutes of the meeting as saying.
Former prime minister Tony Blair's decision to support the 2003 U.S.-led invasion was the most controversial of his 10-year premiership.
It led to internal divisions, huge protests at home and accusations that he deceived Britons over his reasons for war when weapons of mass destruction were not found.
BP told the Foreign Office that Iraq was "more important than anything we've seen for a long time," the newspaper said.
Then-trade minister Elizabeth Symons assured the oil group that the government believed British energy firms should be given a share of Iraq's oil and gas reserves, given Mr. Blair's commitment to U.S. plans.
"Baroness Symons agreed that it would be difficult to justify British companies losing out in Iraq in that way if the U.K. had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the U.S. government throughout the crisis," the newspaper cited minutes of a meeting with BP, Shell and BG Group as saying.
A spokeswoman at the Foreign Office had no immediate comment. BP, Shell, and BG Group were not immediately reachable.