It’s been seven years in the making, but yesterday Sir John Chilcot published his report into the Iraq War. Before Britain’s devastating intervention in Iraq had even reached its conclusion, as military and civilian casualties soared, questions were being asked of the motives, contingency planning, intelligence and legality of such monumental action. After much anticipation, yesterday, forming twelve volumes, 2.6 million words and costing £10 million, the Chilcot report delivers a scathing verdict.
What’s all the fuss about?
In March 2003, then Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Cabinet formed a coalition US-led coalition of 20 countries and went to war with Iraq. The aim was to topple the tyrannical regime of the country’s dictator Saddam Hussein.
President of the United States at the time George W Bush had already declared a “war on terror” following the 9/11 attacks, and saw Iraq as part of an “axis of evil” supporting terrorism and posing “a grave and growing danger” to the US. Blair had similar motives for entering the war, describing today how “we were in a new world, and at that time we didn’t know who the next attack would come from.” He claimed that Hussein possessed chemical and biological weapons that could be used with 45 minutes notice.
Three days before going to war, Parliament authorized military action, although 217 MPs voted against – including 139 Labour MPs. On March 19th, the first bombs fell in Baghdad, and a brutal six-year war had begun. Hussein was captured by Christmas 2003, and was executed three years later. Although courageous and determined, British forces were clearly vastly undersupplied, and therefore overwhelmed by the Iraqi insurrection.
As the months passed, the war collapsed into a brutal Sunni-Shi’a Muslim conflict. Iran became involved and – with a massive vacuum at the top of society due to the new, transitional government – sub-sections of Al-Qaeda developed in strength across Iraq, arguably posing a greater threat than Hussein had previously.
Was the war successful?
Whereas most young people, me included, cannot remember the chaos that ripped the world in the ensuing six years of UK intervention in Iraq; we are made aware every day of the country’s present situation. Last week, Islamic State militants ignited a lorry filled with explosives in Iraq’s capital Baghdad, killing 165 people and injuring 225 others. On Tuesday, 17 people were killed by coalition air strikes and six executed.
Whereas it wouldn’t be accurate to rest the current chaos in the Middle East solely on the military intervention of 2003, it is partially to blame. The toppling of Saddam’s dictatorship left a vacuum in government that provided fertile breeding ground for new terrorist activity in the country, as we witness today.
As the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen said in his report last night: “It was like throwing a great big rock into a pond – it sent out geopolitical, religiously sectarian and military shockwaves, and thirteen years later they are still crashing around the region”.
Why launch another inquiry?
It’s a fact little discussed, but this is not the first inquiry in to the Iraq War. There have already been four separate reports drawn, in 2003 by the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and the joint Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee on the intelligence used by Blair to justify the war, and in 2004 the respective Hutton and Butler inquiries.
But unlike these specific inquiries, the Chilcot report aims to answer the big questions, drifting about over the years but until now, unanswered: why we joined the invasion, the failures of our war-time policies, and what lessons can be learnt.
It wasn’t exactly hasty…
The main reason for the seven-year delay has been the legal process of ‘Maxwellisation’, a procedure that warns individuals who are criticized, allowing them to respond before the publication date. This has sparked criticism from some who cast doubts on how independent this ‘independent’ inquiry really is. Although, Roger Bacon, whose son Matthew Bacon was killed in Iraq in 2005, says the report is “a mark in the sand” that’s “worth the wait”.
And the findings?
Although the entirety of the report reaches 6,000 some pages, the key findings are outlined in the Executive Summary.
- Flawed intelligence – The judgement passed by Blair and those around him about the imminent threat of Iraq’s WMDs “were presented with a certainty that was not justified” and the intelligence had “not established beyond doubt” that Saddam Hussein was continuing to produce these weapons, as indicated by the Joint Intelligence Committee.
- Unjustified military action – The UK chose to join the Iraqi invasion “before all peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted,” there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein and therefore military action was not a last resort. Furthermore, Blair’s declassified letter to Bush committing to war with the words “I will be with you, whatever” was sent neither with the knowledge of his Cabinet nor the Commons.
— norman smith (@BBCNormanS) July 6, 2016
- Illegal? – Sir John does not go as far to reach a legal judgement, however he hints by saying the circumstances surrounding the legal basis for British military action were “far from satisfactory”. A number of international lawyers declared yesterday that the war was in breach of UN legal framework, and the report found that the UK was “undermining the UN Security Council”.
- Inadequate resources – There was “little time” to thoroughly prepare British forces and the risks in doing so were neither “properly identified nor fully exposed” to the government, resulting in “serious equipment shortfalls”. With a crisis in leadership among Generals and within the Ministry of Defence, shortcomings in suitable armoured vehicles, helicopter support and reconnaissance and intelligence equipment were not resolved.
- Lack of contingency plan – Despite repeated warnings, planning and preparations for Iraq post-Saddam Hussein were “wholly inadequate”, resulting in continuing bloodshed in Iraq today.
Reg Keys, whose son was killed in Iraq four days before his 21st birthday, said: “The objective of all the families here is some sort of recompense for what happened”.
Sarah O’Connor’s brother, Sergeant Bob O’Connor, was killed aged 38 in Iraq, and she went as far to label Blair “the world’s worst terrorist.”
On the other hand, Bill Stewardson, whose son Alex never returned home from Iraq, said: “I’m not particularly bothered about Blair’s head on a stick, however those who acted illegally should be taken to task”.
In the House of Commons, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described Blair’s decision to take Britain into war in Iraq as “the most serious foreign policy calamity in 60 years.”
However, Prime Minister David Cameron was more reserved, appearing to empathise with the situation Blair was in at the time. Although, he did say: “lessons must be learned,” starting with a two-day Commons debate next week.
George Bush was yesterday celebrating his 70th birthday on his ranch with a bike ride for amputees who served for the US in Iraq, but his spokesman said that whilst Bush “continues to believe the whole world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power,” he remains “deeply grateful for the service and sacrifice of American and coalition forces in the war on terror.”
As for the man at the epicentre of it all, Tony Blair outlined in detail his response to the report’s findings in press conference that exceeded two hours: “”It was the hardest, most agonising decision I took as Prime Minister,” he said, adding: “The aftermath was more bloody than we imagined,”
However, Blair did stand by the decisions he made and described the world as a “better place” without Saddam Hussein. He also pointed to the fact that the report criticises his judgement, but offers no alternative, and fails to foresee the consequences if Hussein remained in power, perhaps to present day.
Even in the short time since it was published yesterday, many have related the governmental failures outlined in the Chilcot report to the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, just over a fortnight ago.
Indeed, parallels can be drawn in the lack of a long-term plan; just as Blair and his Cabinet had no contingency plan for an Iraq without Saddam Hussein, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and their contemporaries sailed us out of the EU without a real idea of how an ‘independent’ Britain would shape up. Unfortunately for him, Blair has found it more difficult to scurry away from the political spotlight.
But on a broader note, the successive failures in British foreign policy in the build up, course and aftermath of the Iraq War casts a great shadow on our military capabilities. One former general told ITV News yesterday that Blair’s government refused to send out more troops to protect the reputation of Britain’s armed forces; a reputation that is now shattered. And while some Americans are laying the blame in Washington not London, the strength of British-US foreign relations has suffered a severe blow, likely to worsen in the event of a Trump victory.
But reflecting on yesterday’s media coverage, I noticed a distinct lack of two crucial points. First, that it is Blair’s Cabinet, intelligence services who failed to properly assess their sources of information before delivering verdicts and a small number of military commanders and generals who are at fault here, not the British troops who fought with bravery and conviction, whilst under-resourced. Second, that although Blair may “accept full responsibility,” the decision to go to war was ultimately taken collectively by his cabinet so every member of that cabinet should be held accountable.
The verdict of the Chilcot report is likely to weigh heavily on the Labour Party in particular. At a time when the party is already at breaking point, exacerbated by the Brexit vote, Chilcot’s conclusions may well polarise the party even further, strengthening the radical-left Corbyn, but working against the many Blairites on the opposition benches that signed a vote of no confidence against him earlier this week. This situation was evident today during Prime Minister’s Questions when during Corbyn’s speech, Labour MP Ian Austin roared from the benches: “sit down and shut up, you’re a disgrace.”
Perhaps more worryingly, the misgivings of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and continuing allegations of deceit from him and his Cabinet leading in to the Iraq war may isolate an even greater number of young voters who put all politicians in the same boat as ‘liars’, leading to them not voting, as highlighted by the 25% turnout among those aged 18-24 in the EU Referendum.
But politics aside, we must remember that yesterday was truly momentous stepping stone for the families of those 179 British servicemen who never heard Chilcot’s conclusions. For many of them, injustice still ricochets across every letter of the Iraq War, and a long road of legal action may lie ahead.
And finally, for the world, the Iraq Inquiry finally brings at least some closure to one of the wars that haunted the first decade of the 21st Century; years that were scarred by a series of governmental shambles, an increasing terror threat and a tortuous death toll. The conclusions Sir John and his team have drawn will line the pages of history, and forever taint the legacy of the Blair government.
Words by Ewan Somerville