AS SIR JOHN CHILCOT PREPARED TO PRESENT the highlights of the Iraq War Inquiry report at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre on July 6, members of Stop the War Coalition gathered outside the venue holding placards with the word “BLIAR” written on them.
As words rolled out of Chilcot’s mouth, it soon became clear that Tony Blair—the Prime Minister who led Britain into war against Iraq in 2003 with a messianic zeal matched only by his close ally, United States President George W. Bush—had indeed misled the British public. Chilcot, a polite man, did not use the word “liar” or “lied”. Nevertheless, the brief summary of the report that he delivered in tempered prose catalogued with incontrovertible evidence the travesty of justice that was the West’s Iraq invasion.
The Iraq Inquiry was set up in 2009 by former Labour Party Prime Minister Gordon Brown in response to the growing demand for a full investigation into Britain’s Iraq folly as the war and its terrible consequences were unravelling. No concealed stashes of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were found in Iraq other than, of course, those used by the forces of the Western alliance against Iraqis. Brown gave The Iraq Inquiry a year to submit its report. Its terms of reference were: Was it right and necessary to invade Iraq in March 2003? Could and should the United Kingdom have been better prepared for what followed? The inquiry committee eventually took seven years to submit its report. The long wait has been more than compensated for by the detail of the final report, which runs into 2.6 million words in 12 volumes.
At the start of his presentation, Chilcot set the framework in unambiguous terms. “In 2003,” he said, “for the first time since the Second World War, the United Kingdom took part in an opposed invasion and full-scale occupation of a sovereign state—Iraq.”
The report establishes that Blair deceived and misled the public and Parliament, and hid uncomfortable information from them. What are its key findings?
First, in leading Britain’s troops into war in Iraq in April 2003, Blair had not exhausted the peaceful options for disarmament. “Military action at that time was not a last resort,” the report says.
Secondly, Blair had deliberately exaggerated the threat from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as he sought to make his case for war. He disregarded intelligence reports and the statements of the United Nations weapons inspectors. In Chilcot’s words: “The judgments about Iraq’s capabilities about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—WMD—were presented with a certainty that was not justified.”
Thirdly, Blair wrote to Bush on July 28, 2002, eight months before the Iraq invasion, offering unqualified backing for the war well before the U.N. weapons inspectors had completed their work. “I will be with you, whatever,” he wrote in a six-page memo marked secret and personal, a letter not shown to either Foreign Secretary Jack Straw or Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon. It was one of 29 letters that Blair sent Bush in the run-up to the war. In the same letter, Blair made other commitments. “We would support in any way we can,” he said. “A strike date could be Jan/Feb next year. But the crucial issue is not when but how.” He said “right now” he “couldn’t be sure of support from Parliament, party, public or even some in the Cabinet”. However, British public opinion could be swung. “If we recapitulate all the WMD evidence; add his [Saddam Hussein’s] attempts to secure nuclear capability; and as seems possible, add on the Al Qaeda link, it will be hugely persuasive over here.”
Fourthly, the decision to go to war was legally flawed. The report finds that “the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for U.K. military action were far from satisfactory”, Chilcot says.U.N. Resolution
The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1441 on November 8, 2002, which gave Iraq a final opportunity to disarm or face “serious consequences”. It provided for any further breaches by Iraq to be reported to the Security Council “for assessment”, which meant that another Security Council Resolution specifically sanctioning invasion would have to be adopted. The weapons inspectors returned to Iraq later that month.
Blair had been advised by Attorney General Lord Goldsmith in mid January 2003 that only a fresh Security Council Resolution would provide a legal basis for invasion. In another letter to Blair at the end of February that year, Goldsmith wrote that while a second resolution would be preferable, a “reasonable case” could be made that Resolution 1441 was sufficient, which he set out in written advice on March 7. On March 14, he asked Blair to confirm that Iraq had committed further material breaches. Blair did so the next day. The Chilcot report says that the precise basis on which Blair gave that assurance is not clear. The weapons inspectors had at no point during this period—between November 2002 and March 2003—certified that WMD had been found.
“In those circumstances, the U.K.’s actions undermined the authority of the Security Council,” the report notes.
Fifthly, the report points to the “ingrained belief that Saddam Hussein’s regime retained chemical and biological warfare capabilities, was determined to preserve and if possible enhance its capabilities, including at some point in the future a nuclear capability, and was pursuing an active policy of deception and concealment”, that had “underpinned U.K. policy towards Iraq since the Gulf Conflict ended in 1991”. It notes that the assessment of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which formed the basis for judging the threat from Saddam in the Iraq Dossier that the U.K. government presented to Parliament in March 2003, “relied heavily on Iraq’s past behaviour being a reliable indicator of its current and future actions”, and that the absence of evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq was attributed to “Iraq’s ability to conceal its activities and deceive the inspectors”.
When, after the invasion, the promised WMD were not found, “U.K. Ministers and officials sought to lower public expectations of immediate or significant finds of WMD in Iraq”, the report notes.
In other words, the notion of a current and growing threat from Saddam was never proved. In the words of the report, the intelligence agencies produced “flawed information”.
A year later in 2004, the Iraq Survey Group found that the British government’s pre-invasion statements were vastly exaggerated. In response to its findings, Blair shifted his position. He told the House of Commons that although Iraq might not have had “stockpiles of actually deployable weapons”, Saddam “retained the intent and capability….and was in breach of United Nations resolutions”.
The Chilcot report notes this shift in Blair’s position. “That was not, however, the explanation for military action he had given before the conflict,” it said.
Sixthly, British forces were under-equipped, resulting in a “humiliating” decision to strike a deal with enemy militias. The invasion was planned in a hurry. “Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. The planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were wholly inadequate,” the report finds. “There was little time to prepare three brigades and the risks were neither properly identified nor fully exposed to Ministers”, resulting in equipment shortfalls.
Seventhly, while in early January 2003 the U.K. said that the interim post-conflict administration should be U.N.-led, it failed to persuade the U.S. on this and set itself the “less ambitious goal”, the report records, “of persuading the U.S. to accept U.N. authorisation of a coalition-led interim administration”.
Finally, the report asks if the U.K. realised its objectives by going into a war in which more than 200 British citizens died and many more were injured, and in which by July 2009 at least 15,000 Iraqis, most of them civilians, had died and more than a million Iraqis were displaced. The U.S.-led coalition had promised to “help the Iraqi people build a new Iraq at peace with itself and its neighbours”, the report states. Did it do that?
Here, too, the report is damning in its indictment of the U.K. for failing in the tasks of stabilising, administering and reconstructing Iraq. “The U.K. military role in Iraq ended a very long way from success,” the report concludes.It was oil, not weapon
An important criticism of the conclusions (rather than its evidence) of the report has been that Chilcot failed to highlight the fact that access to Iraq’s oil reserves was a motive for the invasion. Writing in Open Democracy , David Whyte and the oil campaigner Greg Muttitt argue that Iraq had 10 per cent of the world’s oil reserves, and though this factor played a role in the objectives of the war, which is noted in the evidence of the report, Chilcot failed to highlight it in his oral submission and in the 250-word executive summary. The hollowness of the Blair government’s claim that the presence of WMD in Iraq was the motive for war is taken at “face value”, the authors argue. However, Chilcot “shows a remarkable lack of curiosity about the political factors behind the move to war, especially given the weakness (even at the time) of the WMD case”. In volume 9 of the report, Chilcot “records that senior government officials met secretly with BP [British Petroleum] and Shell on several occasions (denied at the time) to discuss their commercial interests in obtaining contracts”.
The authors say that although Chilcot did not release the minutes of several of these meetings, they obtained them under the Freedom of Information Act. In one of the minutes it is stated: “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP are desperate to get in there.” The report also includes references to several pre-war documents identifying a British objective of using Iraqi oil to boost Britain’s own energy supplies. The authors quote from a February 2002 Cabinet Office paper, which stated that the U.K.’s Iraq policy falls “within our objectives of preserving peace and stability in the Gulf and ensuring energy security”. Using the cache of documents obtained by Muttitt, author of the book Fuel on the Fire , TheIndependent in an expose in 2011 highlighted British oil interests behind the Iraq war. Quoting from official documents pertaining to October and November of 2002, that is, five months before the March 2003 invasion, TheIndependent writes: “Baroness Symons, then the Trade Minister, told BP that the government believed British energy firms should be given a share of Iraq’s enormous oil and gas reserves as a reward for Tony Blair’s military commitment to the U.S.’ plans for regime change.”
The 20-year contracts signed in the wake of the invasion were the largest in the history of the oil industry, according to Muttitt’s documents. “They covered half of Iraq’s reserves—60 billion barrels of oil, bought up by companies such as BP and CNPC (China National Petroleum Company), whose joint consortium alone stands to make £403m ($658m) profit per year from the Rumaila field in southern Iraq.”
Blair has remained unapologetic about his role in the war, arguing that he acted on the basis of the information he had at the time. He said that he would do it again if he was presented with the same information, adding that the “world is a better place” without Saddam Hussein.
The Iraq Inquiry is not a judicial body and as Chilcot said, does not act like a jury. It remains for others to utilise its findings for a legal case against those responsible for the war. The families of the soldiers who died in the war and who have gained insights into the official deception and mismanagement that resulted in the deaths of their loved ones are weighing the possibility. Meanwhile, Blair is to be formally censured by the British Parliament for his role in fomenting a war that a majority within Parliament voted in support of, a small “punishment” for a man whose personal role in causing the destruction of a sovereign nation is now documented for all to see.