Not a whitewash
Yassamine Mather examines the Chilcot report and looks at a possible response
On July 7, by the time John Chilcot had finished a short presentation of his inquiry, it was quite clear that his report was not a whitewash, as feared, or predicted, by many. Unlike his predecessors, Lord Hutton (who led the 2003 judicial inquiry to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly, a biological warfare expert and former UN weapons inspector in Iraq) and Robin Butler (who led the review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction), Chilcot was damning in his condemnation of Tony Blair, leaving little doubt about the lack of legal process prior to the invasion, the absence of evidence about WMDs, and the poor preparation for the invasion and reconstruction afterwards.
The report’s conclusions are unambiguous:
- There was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein.
- The strategy of ‘containment’ could have been adopted and continued for some time.
- The judgments about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s alleged WMDs were presented with a certainty that was not justified.
- Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. The planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam were wholly inadequate.
- The widespread perception that the September 2002 dossier of distorted intelligence produced a “damaging legacy”, undermining “trust and confidence” in politicians.
- The government failed to achieve its stated objectives.
You did not need to be a genius to know what was wrong with George W Bush’s proposal to invade Iraq and where it would end. So the question remains, why did the Commons not listen to former foreign secretary Robin Cooke? When he resigned as leader of the house in protest against the forthcoming invasion on March 17 2003, he said:
The threshold for war should always be high. None of us can predict the death toll of civilians in the forthcoming bombardment of Iraq. But the US warning of a bombing campaign that will “shock and awe” makes it likely that casualties will be numbered at the very least in the thousands.
Iraq’s military strength is now less than half its size at the time of the last Gulf war. Ironically, it is only because Iraq’s military forces are so weak that we can even contemplate invasion. And some claim his forces are so weak, so demoralised and so badly equipped that the war will be over in days … We cannot base our military strategy on the basis that Saddam is weak and at the same time justify pre-emptive action on the claim that he is a serious threat.
Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of that term - namely, a credible device capable of being delivered against strategic city targets. It probably does still have biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions. But it has had them since the 1980s, when the US sold Saddam the anthrax agents and the then British government built his chemical and munitions factories.
In other words, not supporting bad regimes in the first place is a much better policy. But what a long list there is of bad regimes and their leaders supported by the US and UK: Pahlavi, Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad (father and son), Netanyahu, the house of Saud ... the list goes on.
The Chilcot report was not a judicial report and the inquiry was not set up to make any legal findings. However, despite this the report is reasonably clear: “We have, however, concluded that the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for UK military action were far from satisfactory.” In fact section 5 of the report - nearly 170 pages - provides detailed analysis of the legal advice given by the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith. Originally Goldsmith had said United Nations resolution 1441 was not sufficient to justify going to war and as late as March 7 2003, just two weeks before the invasion, he was adamant that the “safest route was a second UN resolution”. Then between March 13 and 17 Goldsmith appeared to be changing his mind. According to the documents published by Chilcot, he asked Blair if there was proof that Iraq had breached the above resolution (Blair replied immediately that there was).
Chilcot concluded that on March 17 there was a “deliberate selection of a formulation which grounded the statement in what Mr Blair believed, rather than in the judgements which the joint intelligence committee had actually reached”. In other words, the politics blurred the practical judgements, even if there is no evidence of deliberate intent to mislead. This in part relates to the final decision on the legality of the invasion - a decision for which Blair has to take full responsibility, because the cabinet and the government’s legal officers were not involved in making it. Ministers were asked to confirm a decision that the diplomatic process was at an end and that the Commons should be asked to endorse military action. Chilcot’s conclusions are damning: “Given the gravity of the situation, the cabinet should have been made aware of the legal uncertainties.”
Despite the claims of Bush and Blair, it was obvious even in 2003 that after a decade of sanctions the country could not possess any nuclear arsenal or aeroplanes capable of delivering nuclear bombs. However, there was some doubt about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons capability. After all, as Robin Cook pointed out, it had had them since the 1980s, thanks to the US and UK.
Chilcot provides some other insights regarding WMDs. In September 2002, MI6 claimed it had found a source with “phenomenal access” to the highest echelons of the Iraqi regime, one who would be the “key to unlock” the secrets of a chemical and biological arsenal. This “undercover asset” had allegedly confirmed that the WMD programme was going full blast. Yet this significant new information was not shared with the joint intelligence committee or the scientific analysts of the ministry of defence. Doubts only started when an MI6 officer pointed out that “the source’s description of the device and its spherical glass contents was remarkably similar to the fictional chemical weapons portrayed in the film The rock”. The Independent takes up the story:
The great scoop was unravelling fast. It was noted by MI6 on February 2 2003 that the source had failed to provide the information expected. By February 18, the man was being described in MI6 notes as a liar who had been misleading them for a long time. But MI6 failed to tell others involved in producing the dossier about the debacle. Reports from the Iraqi were still being issued in April, a month after the war had begun.
MI6 finally met the source in June 2003. He had only been involved in Iraq’s chemical programme, in a minor capacity, before 1991. He denied providing any of the tantalising material attributed to him. MI6 “concluded that its source was a fabricator who had lied from the outset”.1
In July 2003, the ‘intelligence’ was officially withdrawn. Chilcot notes: “the withdrawal of the reporting was done in a very low-key manner, compared with the way in which the original intelligence was issued”.
So let me summarise all this. Over the last 13 years, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed, the Middle East has become the scene of endless civil wars and failed states, groups like Islamic State have won substantial support and an entire region has been devastated - all resulting from a war justified by lies and WMD stories based on a movie. How will history judge Bush and Blair?
Chilcot also deals with some of the after-effects. Blair had been warned of the consequences of this kind of regime change in Iraq. In November 2002, Blair invited six academic experts on Iraq and the Middle East to Downing Street and some of them gave evidence to the inquiry. Dr Toby Dodge, then of Queen Mary University, had warned of a likely scenario: that Iraqis would fight for their country against the invaders rather than just celebrate the fall of their leader. A long and nasty civil war could follow. Professor George Joffe, a prominent Iraq expert at Cambridge University, told the inquiry he had warned Blair that “simply removing Saddam” would not bring peace and prosperity to Iraq and that the situation was far more complex. In an interview with Middle East Eye, Professor Joffe recounts he told Blair:
“Iraq was an extremely complicated state and simply removing Saddam would not solve the problem”. Joffe said Blair “listened carefully” before responding that Saddam was an “evil man” who needed to be removed. “I thought this was a particularly irrelevant comment.”2
On July 20 2010, Baroness Manningham-Butler, former director-general of MI5, gave evidence to the inquiry. She was asked: “To what extent did the conflict in Iraq exacerbate the overall threat that your service and your fellow services were having to deal with from international terrorism?” She replied: “Substantially”, going on to specify “numerical evidence of the number of plots, the number of leads, the number of people identified, and the correlation of that to Iraq and statements of people as to why they were involved”.
This week an academic colleague of mine reminded me of yet another falsehood, repeated endlessly by Blair: the idea that the Iraqi invasion was somehow linked to 9/11. In fact in his post-Chilcot press conference Blair repeats this falsehood. But, as we all knew then, and Chilcot explicitly states in para 51 of the summary, “In November 2001, the JIC assessed that Iraq had played no role in the 9/11 attacks on the US and that practical cooperation between Iraq and al Qa’eda was ‘unlikely’.” There was no “credible evidence of covert transfers of WMD-related technology and expertise to terrorist groups”. It was possible that Iraq might use WMD in terrorist attacks, but “only if the regime was under serious and imminent threat of collapse”.
Chilcot chooses his words very carefully and there can be no doubt about the meaning here: “But the deliberate selection of a formulation which grounded the statement in what Mr Blair believed, rather than in the judgements which the JIC had actually reached in its assessment of the intelligence, indicates a distinction between his beliefs and the JIC’s actual judgements.”
My colleague sums it up very well: we should not accept Blair’s excuse that he ‘believed’ in what he was doing. Firstly, even if it was a genuine belief, a prime minister should surely consider the evidence upon which such belief is based. Secondly, the ‘belief’ was manufactured in order to boost his own ego - this can be seen in his ridiculous contortions to please Bush. And thirdly, ‘belief’ is no defence either legally or morally.
Getting rid of Saddam
The mass of emails and transcripts of phone conversations show that Blair decided to follow Bush when he visited the US president in Crawford in 2002, and he then spent the following months shifting legal arguments to suit his purpose, encouraging, then accepting, exaggerated reports and refusing to listen to warnings about the possible post-Saddam chaos - “With you, whatever”, as Blair wrote to Bush in a memo. When Blair testified before the inquiry in 2010, he was asked directly whether he would invade Iraq again if he could turn the clock back. Despite all the consequences of his decision, his reply was an unequivocal ‘yes’. Last week in a number of interviews he gave the same response, because the world “was better off without Saddam”.
Well, not according to many Iraqis. Last week it was tragic to read that those who celebrated the overthrow of the dictator are now regretting his downfall. One amongst many of those quoted by western reporters was Kadhim al-Jabbouri, a champion weightlifter who became a symbol of the Iraqi people’s hatred of the dictator when in April 2003 he brought down the large statue of Saddam Hussein in one of Baghdad’s main squares. Speaking last week to BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, Kadhim regrets what he did:
… he now wishes he had left his sledgehammer at home. Kadhim, like many Iraqis, blames the invaders for starting a chain of events that destroyed the country. He longs for the certainties and stability of Saddam’s time … “Saddam has gone, and we have one thousand Saddams now.”3
Chilcot also deals with military planning and post-invasion reconstruction. According to the report, “Britain’s troops were sent to war in Iraq under-prepared and with serious equipment shortfalls.”
The consequences were twofold. On the one hand, many soldiers died as a direct result of poor or faulty equipment. The families of these soldiers are angry, having discovered how poor military preparation contributed to the death of their sons and daughters, but that was not all. Many were angry because Chilcot showed how the war was not the “last resort” it was claimed to be and that it produced devastating results. Typical is the father of one of the soldiers killed in Iraq, who told Chilcot that his son “died in vain”.
However, there is another more sinister dimension to all this (one that, as far as I know, Chilcot does not refer to). A combination of poor military preparations and the subsequent fear of ‘insurgents’ led to brutality in prisons and detention centres, often against civilians. No-one can be in any doubt that some of the horrific violence we see in the region by members of al Qa’eda and now IS are not unrelated to the kind of gratuitous violence we saw in prisons such as Abu Ghraib or the indiscriminate shootings that took the lives of so many innocent Iraqi bystanders. So it was not just British soldiers, but also Iraqis, who were victims of this lack of preparation.
As for ‘reconstruction’ and post-occupation planning, the reality is just as bad. The report says de-Ba’athification, which in effect made redundant more than 30,000 public servants who were members of the ruling Ba’ath party, “made the task of reconstructing Iraq more difficult, both by reducing the pool of Iraqi administrators and by adding to the pool of the unemployed and disaffected, which in turn fed insurgent activity”.
In other words, the inquiry provides us with answers about how recruits for al Qa’eda and IS were won, at least as far as Iraq is concerned. Of course, the disaster of post-occupation ‘reconstruction’ should have repercussions for Hilary Benn, who was international development secretary at the time and was presumably well aware of the situation.
The Chilcot report notes that Tony Blair used dubious statistics, including Iraq’s purportedly high child mortality rate, to gain support for the invasion. In evidence to the inquiry he claimed that in 2000-02 Iraq had a child mortality rate of 130 per 1,000 children under the age of five. “That figure today is not 130: it is 40. That equates to about 50,000 young people, children [alive today who would not be if Saddam Hussein had remained in power] … that’s the result that getting rid of Saddam makes.” However, research by professor Michael Spagat shows that these figures were totally wrong. According to Spagat,
The actual child mortality rate in Iraq was between 40 and 60 under-five deaths per thousand births on the eve of the invasion, rather than the 130 cited by Blair. Post-invasion improvements, if any, are dwarfed by more than a quarter million (and counting) violent deaths in the war. Blair’s contention before Chilcot that child mortality trends can justify, even in hindsight, the invasion of Iraq is wrong.
A country that in 1978, the year before he seized power, was richer than Malaysia or Portugal. A country where today, 135 out of every 1,000 Iraqi children die before the age of five.4
The report shows that Blair’s child mortality claim was based on a Unicef survey which was fully discredited only later by four subsequent surveys.
Predictions by academics about turmoil in the Middle East following the invasion were if anything understated. Iran’s Islamic Republic lost a powerful enemy and gained an ally in the shape of the new Shia government in Baghdad. The Iranian regime improved its ties with Syria, and strengthened its alliances with the Lebanese Hezbollah. No wonder the Saudi royals became obsessed with Shia power in the region.
The former director of public prosecutions, Lord MacDonald QC, believes that “Tony Blair’s conduct in the build-up to the Iraq war could amount to misconduct in public office.” He gives an example of “particularly egregious misconduct” set out in the report. “It is committed when a public official acting in the course of their duties wilfully neglects to perform that duty, or wilfully misconducts themselves to such a degree that their behaviour amounts to an abuse of the public’s trust in them.”5
According to The Times, quoting Fatuou Bensouda , chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, the ICC can investigate anyone accused of war crimes. However for Blair to be prosecuted, there would have to be hard evidence that he knew about, and approved of, any war crimes that took place on the ground in Iraq. And the ICC would only be able to prosecute Blair if Britain refused to investigate such allegations.
David Swanson, the author of When the world outlawed war, wrote last week:
It is commonplace to insist that the ICC cannot handle the supreme crime of aggression, although it might at some point in the future. But this focus on the ICC is a sign of weakness in a global movement for justice that has other tools readily available. When the losers of World War II were prosecuted, there was no ICC. The ICC’s existence does not impede anything that was done in Nuremberg or Tokyo, where the crime of making war was prosecuted by the victors of World War II under the Kellogg-Briand Pact.6
There is, of course, another alternative, initially promoted by Iranian and British anti-war activists and one that is gaining some momentum: a symbolic tribunal of Tony Blair and members of his cabinet, for crimes against the peoples of the region in pursuing a war that has led to other wars, devastated an entire region and created failed states.
This is a region where millions have become refugees, where hundreds of thousands have lost their lives, where hope of change for a better political system has died. Many Iranians will tell you they prefer the prison they live in - Iran’s Islamic republic - to the hell that is Iraq or Syria. They know about the daily bombings in Baghdad, life in Mosul under IS, the gradual but steady destruction of Aleppo, Palmira and Damascus. They listen to the stream of broadcasts by regime-change opponents of the Tehran government sounding exactly like Ahmed Chalabi, the pre-Iraq war anti-Saddam propagandist who later became prime minister, and they decide that the evil they know in the shape of their corrupt, neoliberal government is better than what they see in Iraq.
Yet both Bush and Blair are adamant: they would do it all again. And, although neither is in a position to do so, both candidates in the US presidential elections, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, are clearly willing to opt for military intervention in Syria, in Yemen … A Conservative government led by Theresa May would support such intervention and it would probably not be challenged by the majority of the current Labour MPs, who clearly have learnt nothing from the Iraq war.
It is for this reason that many people, including academics, socialists and labour activists inside Iran, have come to the conclusion that there is an absolute necessity to set up a symbolic tribunal. The peoples of the Middle East have a right to air their views on war criminals such as Tony Blair, and accomplices like Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle, not just for the Iraq war, but for the disaster that is the current Middle East.
In pursuing this effort, a group of activists has made initial approaches to a number of barristers and QCs for legal representation and they are contacting like-minded people in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Israel. Of course, should similar efforts be taken up by others, the group will cooperate with and support them. If you would like to get in touch with those preparing it email email@example.com.