Predicted to bring mayhem to Iraq and increase British vulnerability to al-Qaeda, the UK's role in the Iraq war was Tony Blair's choice
“We have concluded that the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.”
That is the devastating conclusion of the Iraq inquiry, set out by Sir John Chilcot in his statement launching the inquiry report on 6 July 2016.
The invasion of Iraq was a war of choice, which as predicted in advance brought mayhem to Iraq and increased the threat to Britain and British interests from al-Qaeda. There was no compelling reason for Tony Blair to make that choice for Britain in March 2003.
As the report says, “there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein” in March 2003 and “the strategy of containment could have been adapted and continued for some time”. This is in complete contradiction to Tony Blair's continual assertions at the time that Iraq, equipped with “weapons of mass destruction”, was a grave threat to its neighbours and even to Britain itself – and had to be dealt with imminently.
In March 2003, “the majority of the Security Council supported continuing UN inspections and monitoring”.
Peaceful route aborted
The US and UK eliminated that possibility by beginning armed action on 19 March 2003. This was not triggered by the inspectors reporting that they couldn’t do any more useful work, because, for example, they were being obstructed by the Iraqi regime. On the contrary, the inspectors were anxious to have more time to complete their mission.
No, as the report’s executive summary states, “the timing of military action was entirely driven by the US Administration” - timing that was accepted by Tony Blair at the end of January 2003.
So, on 19 March 2003, the peaceful UN route of disarmament by inspection was aborted by the US and UK against the wishes of the Security Council and armed action was undertaken without authorisation by the Security Council. Nevertheless, the UK government claimed that it was acting on behalf of the international community "to uphold the authority of the Security Council".
The report rightly concluded this was nonsense, saying: “In the absence of a majority in support of military action, we consider that the UK was, in fact, undermining the Security Council’s authority.”
The report is a complete vindication of the position of France, Germany and Russia, which maintained throughout that disarmament by inspection should continue until inspectors reported that disarmament by inspection was impossible. Then and only then should the Security Council consider endorsing military action to disarm Iraq.
'A certainty not justified'
On the intelligence on “weapons of mass destruction”, the report reiterates the conclusion of the Butler report of July 2004: “The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – WMD – were presented with a certainty that was not justified.”
For example, Tony Blair’s foreword to the September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction famously contained the statement: “What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons …”
Here, the report is critical of the Joint Intelligence Committee saying: “The JIC accepted ownership of the dossier and agreed its content. … The assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt either that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued. The JIC should have made that clear to Mr Blair.”
According to the report, Blair “told the Inquiry that the difficulties encountered in Iraq after the invasion could not have been known in advance”.
But the inquiry team didn’t agree that hindsight was required, saying: “The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and Al Qaeda activity in Iraq, were each explicitly identified before the invasion.”
Increased threat to UK
Blair had also been advised in advance that an invasion of Iraq was expected to increase the threat to the UK and UK interests from al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The JIC Assessment of 10 February 2003 repeated previous warnings that “Al Qaeda and associated networks would remain the greatest terrorist threat to the UK and its activity would increase at the onset of any military action against Iraq” and “in the event of imminent regime collapse, Iraqi chemical and biological material could be transferred to terrorists, including Al Qaeda”.
Addressing the prospects for the future, the JIC Assessment concluded: “... Al Qaeda and associated groups will continue to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat will be heightened by military action against Iraq".
These predictions, which were ignored by Blair, were unfortunately realised in practice.
As Baroness Manningham‑Buller told the inquiry: “By 2003/2004 we were receiving an increasing number of leads to terrorist activity from within the UK ... our involvement in Iraq radicalised, for want of a better word ... a few among a generation ... [who] saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam.”
This upsurge in al-Qaeda linked activity in Britain, which included the London bombings in July 2005, would almost certainly not have happened if the UK had refused to join the US in invading Iraq in March 2003.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin was an eloquent advocate for disarmament, the view that inspectors should be given the time necessary to do their job.
Speaking to the Security Council on 14 February 2003, he had said: “There are two options. The option of war might seem, on the face of it, to be the swifter. But let us not forget that, after the war is won, the peace must be built. And let us not delude ourselves: That will be long and difficult, because it will be necessary to preserve Iraq’s unity and to restore stability in a lasting way in a country and a region harshly affected by the intrusion of force. In the light of that perspective, there is the alternative offered by inspections, which enable us to move forward, day by day, on the path of the effective and peaceful disarmament of Iraq. In the end, is that not the surer and the swifter choice?
“No one can maintain today that the path of war will be shorter than the path of inspections; no one can maintain that it would lead to a safer, more just and more stable world. For war is always the outcome of failure. Could it be our sole recourse in the face of today’s many challenges?”
Iraq would be a very different place today, if Dominique de Villepin’s advice had been followed.