By Jim Greenhalf
Next week sees the publication of the much-delayed Chilcot Report into the UK’s involvement in the invasion and occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2009.
There are two aspects to this. The first, how we got involved, is primarily political; the second, what Britain’s armed forces did during those seven years in response to the Islamic insurgency or uprising, is mainly military.
The course of the war, which led to the Iraqi Government of Nouri al-Maliki telling Britain to withdraw its forces by 2009, is not the concern of Chilcot. However, the failure of Britain’s military campaign and the cost in lives, money and material, was one of the factors which prompted Tony Blair’s successor in 10 Downing Street, Gordon Brown, to commission Privy Councillor Sir John Chilcot to conduct his inquiry.
The inquiry, which has cost more than £10m, was set up to:- ‘Consider the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, embracing the run-in to the conflict in Iraq, the military action and its aftermath. We will therefore be considering the UK’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned.’
Peter Oborne sums up the importance of the Chilcot Report in the final pages of his new book, Not the Chilcot Report:- “The British people used to trust the British state. This trust is the magnificent legacy of World War Two, when we united in common sacrifice to confront fascism. Ever since then we have regarded our state as ultimately decent and benign…
“This trust was shattered by the Iraq war, and its gruesome aftermath. We have learned that civil servants, spies and politicians could not be trusted to act with integrity and decency and in the national interest. This discovery was shattering because it calls into question the moral basis on which Britain has been governed for the last hundred years or more.
“That is why the Iraq Inquiry matters a great deal. It is the last chance for the British Establishment to show that it can learn the lessons of its failures – and hold those who fail to account. If Sir John Chilcot and his inquiry fail to achieve this, the Iraq Inquiry will be the final proof that our system of government is broken.”
But in striving to strike a resounding note, Oborne appears to have forgotten those shabby instances after World War II when the British people’s trust in the state was shattered: the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal area of Egypt in 1956; John Profumo’s resignation as Secretary of State for War in 1963 after admitting that he had lied to the House of Commons about his relationship with call girl Christine Keeler; and Prime Minister Edward Heath’s explicit public denial in 1972 that membership of the European Common Market (now the EU) would mean the sacrifice of Britain’s independence and sovereignty.
When political leaders want things to happen irrespective of public opinion, is anyone seriously surprised that they may be economical with the truth? Were this not the case, hanging and conscription would have both been brought back by public demand years ago.
The simple question is this: Who needs the Chilcot Report? Are the families of the 179 British service personnel killed in Iraq – among them Sergeant Robert Stevens, from Shipley, Sergeant Christian Hickey, from Bradford, Captain Guy Philip, from Skipton and Corporal Chris O’Neill, from Halifax – expecting Chilcot to be an improvement on the four reports published to date, including the Hutton Inquiry into the death of weapons inspector David Kelly?
Reg Keys, who contested Tony Blair’s Sedgefield seat in the 2005 General Election following the death of his son Tom in Iraq in July 2003, has already said the war was illegal and that Tony Blair was a war criminal for persuading the House of Commons to vote in favour of it without the explicit approval of the United Nations Security Council. Many people agree with him.
Operation Telic, as the American-led invasion of Iraq was code-named, took the lives of 4, 491 US service personnel, while the Iraq Body Count Project puts the number of civilian dead in the region of 174,355 up to March 2016. The Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimated that by 2008 there were 4.7m Iraqi refugees, while 870,000 children had been orphaned. What is the Chilcot Report to them?
The Inquiry, which was only supposed to last for a year but went on for six, was not a court of law. Criticisms are likely, the finger of blame may be pointed at Prime Minister Blair and his men, as well as senior military figures; but what real difference will be made either to the public’s willingness to trust its leaders or the way we are governed?
“If the Inquiry has done its job, it will have demolished forever the myth that the failure to deal with the Iraq insurgency was entirely the fault of the politicians and that the military was blameless. The Iraq occupation was as much due to military incompetence as it was political inadequacy,” said Dr Richard North, Bradford political analyst and author of Ministry of Defeat: The British War in Iraq 2003-2009.
His book chronicles the failure of the Ministry of Defence and British Army commanders to respond to the realities of the Shia insurgency, one of which was the use of Improvised Explosive Devices against army vehicles more suitable to patrolling urban areas of Northern Ireland than the roads and tracks in Basra, one of four provinces assigned to the British Army.
It wasn’t lack of money, as the public has been led to believe by Ministry of Defence apologists, Dr North maintains; but the misuse of money to procure the wrong equipment for an army being re-modelled to fit the European Union’s proposed multi-national European Rapid Reaction Force.
Those under the age of thirty may be surprised that up until the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair was widely admired for the military action he advocated in the trouble-spots of Kosovo, in the Balkans, and Sierra Leone, West Africa, to prevent massacres. At the time of the invasion opinion was divided. Most who went along with the Government line thought that war was the lesser of two evils. Some, like the late journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, publicly defended the Blair Government’s prosecution of the war against Iraq’s homicidal leader Saddam Hussein.
In the minds of President George W Bush and Prime Minister Blair, Saddam Hussein was the greater evil. Professor Paul Rogers, of Bradford University’s Peace Studies department, smiled mischievously when he reminded me that in the 1980s US President Ronald Reagan described the former USSR as the ‘evil empire’ and less than twenty years later George W Bush tried to frighten the world with his vision of ‘the axis of evil’ – North Korea, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq.
Professor Rogers, who submitted written evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, said: “I think the Report will be pretty critical of Blair and senior military figures. It may not say that Blair lied. A person may believe something that’s wrong in good faith. Chilcot will make a bit of a difference in that many people think the war was wrong. I don’t think it will be a whitewash. ” Nor does he think it will lead to the dock of the International Criminal Court.
Peter Oborne says plainly that the evidence shows that Tony Blair colluded with the United States to further the agreed strategy of regime change. He and George W Bush did so by maintaining, against the evidence of UN weapons inspectors, that Saddam had stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction and was in league with al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden’s group behind the attacks on the United States on September 9, 2001, which killed almost 3,000 people.
He dismisses as “fantasy” the idea that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was necessary to destroy Saddam Hussein’s links with al Qaeda. Oborne says the notion of such an alliance was “invented to provide some sort of an answer to the question: why are you invading Iraq when you say that the greatest threat to the West is al-Qaeda?
“The pragmatic thing for the US to do after 9/11 was to make peace with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a secular Arab state opposed to al-Qaeda, and with Iran, a Shia state opposed to al-Qaeda – and do what was necessary to force Saudi Arabia and its Gulf state allies to cease providing inspiration to al-Qaeda.
“But, instead, Iran was included in the ‘axis of evil’ and shunned by the US and its allies, and Iraq was invaded and occupied, falsely justified in part on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was one of the architects of 9/11 – and in the process Iraq was transformed from an al-Qaeda free zone into an area where Islamic extremists flourished…Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has continued to inspire al-Qaeda and its offshoots – and continues to be the US’s best friend in the Middle East.”
In his book The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution, Patrick Cockburn says a 2013 study published by the directorate-general for external policies of the European Parliament began by stating: “Saudi Arabia has been a major source of funding to rebel and terrorist organisations since the 1980s.”
One of the documents released by WikiLeaks in December 2009 quotes the-then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton observing: “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan) and other terrorist groups.” In July, 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported that 45 per cent of all foreign militants attacking US troops and Iraqi civilians were from Saudi Arabia.
If George W Bush and Tony Blair were truly bent on snuffing out Islamic terrorism in March 2003 to further the Project for the New American Century, they sent their armed forces against the wrong country.
Richard North said: “Iraq was not about 9/11. It was the excuse (for) Bush junior and unfinished business. In terms of sponsorship (of terrorism) Saudi is the key. Ironic that it was used as a base against Iraq for Operation Desert Storm in 1991.” Desert Storm was the US-led military coalition which drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait during the presidency of George W’s father, George Herbert Bush. Evidently, Bush junior had a lot to live up to.
Robert Fisk’s mighty chronicle The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, reminds us of what Bush’s Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said about Weapons of Mass Destruction. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
We are told that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them, as Britain did first in Iraq, then Afghanistan, where 453 British service personnel were killed, followed by Libya and latterly Syria.
Perhaps the only lesson governments ever truly learn from its mistakes is how to repeat them – with more expertise.