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War criminals? | The World Weekly

This weekend served as yet another reminder of the brutal reality Iraq is facing more than 13 years after the US-led invasion, backed by the UK, toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. More than 290 people were killed when a lorry packed with explosives detonated in Baghdad’s Karrada district as residents were shopping to prepare for the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The massive blast, claimed by Islamic State (IS) militants, caused an inferno that engulfed nearby buildings and, according to rescuers, killed whole families.

The brutal attack, seen as the deadliest since the 2003 invasion, came only days before the UK published a long-awaited report examining Britain’s decision to go to war and its conduct in Iraq. 

The Iraq Inquiry, informally named after its chair, Sir John Chilcot, levelled harsh criticism against former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who it said relied on flawed intelligence and legal advice. And while it showed him acting as a moderating voice in US President George W. Bush’s plans to go to war, in the end Mr. Blair followed him regardless. 

Britain’s decision to join the effort was made “before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted”, Sir John said as he presented the report, which took seven years to produce. “Military action at that time was not a last resort.”  

However, the report, which can be seen as the most comprehensive study into the war commissioned by a government, does not, as many had pressed for, address the question whether the invasion was legal or not. “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,” Sir John said.

As well as criticising Mr. Blair, the report paints a picture of a collective failure by numerous individuals and institutions. On the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it details how senior figures in the Blair government, including former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, launched a campaign to make the case for Iraq posing a particular threat, while other countries such as Iran, Libya and North Korea were judged by the intelligence community as higher threats. The inquiry concluded that the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, a major justification for the invasion, “were presented with a certainty that was not justified”.

In the foreword to a public dossier on Iraq’s WMDs, Tony Blair wrote that it had been established “beyond doubt” that the Iraqi government “continued to produce chemical and biological weapons” and continued efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The Chilcot report, however, notes that the intelligence in fact “had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons” or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons were ongoing at the time. The inquiry says the Joint Intelligence Committee should have clarified its position, given the importance of the debate the Iraq dossier informed.

Much has been written about the close relationship between Tony Blair and George W. Bush. The Chilcot report includes the following insightful note from July 28, 2002 by Mr. Blair to President Bush: “I will be with you, whatever. But this is the moment to assess bluntly the difficulties. The planning on this and the strategy are the toughest yet. This is not Kosovo. This is not Afghanistan. It is not even the Gulf War.” This note, the report says, led the UK down a path which made it very difficult for Britain to later withdraw support for the US. 

Crucially important for Iraq’s current situation, “planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were wholly inadequate”, Sir John said. The invasion and its aftermath caused the deaths of what some estimates say up to one million Iraqis and triggered the displacement of several million people. 

Iraqis search for bodies of victims on July 4, 2016, after a truck bomb in Baghdad’s Karrada district killed over 280 people

While the report was published over 13 years after the invasion of Iraq, the fires stoked then are far from extinguished, not only for millions of Iraqis, but also inhabitants of the wider region. 

The war’s impact

“The 2003 ‘Coalition of the Willing’ invasion of Iraq was a strategic catastrophe, unleashing pent up forces that are still roiling the region and likely will do so for a generation to come,” Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, told The World Weekly. But how did it come to this?    

Colonel Wilkerson participated in the preparation of Secretary Powell’s presentation before the UN in February 2003, which laid out the case for war by presenting alleged evidence for Saddam Hussein’s WMD programme, evidence that turned out to be wrong. Colonel Wilkerson has criticised the intelligence community over this and in 2011 called his involvement in the preparation “probably the biggest mistake of my life”.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the hallmark of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, who infamously labelled the country as part of an ‘Axis of Evil’ in 2002. However, plans for a regime change in Baghdad can be traced back further than Mr. Bush, with Congress passing a bill called the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, allocating $100 million to approved Iraqi opposition groups.

On the international stage, former President Bush presented his call for action on Iraq in September 2002, accusing Iraq amongst other things of supporting terrorist organisations and expanding its biological and chemical weapons programme, both key justifications of the invasion and both incorrect, as Chilcot makes clear. Crucially, the failure to find any biological, chemical or nuclear weapons in Iraq led to the war’s proponents turning retrospectively to the establishment of democracy to defend the invasion.

As the lack of WMDs became clearer, Mr. Blair increasingly focused his arguments around Saddam Hussein’s authoritarianism and the need for regime change. “I can apologise for the information being wrong but I can never apologise, sincerely at least, for removing Saddam. The world is a better place with Saddam in prison not in power,” Mr. Blair said in 2004. The former dictator was executed in 2006 after a trial in Iraq.

Responding to Chilcot’s damning findings, Mr. Blair on July 6, 2016 apologised for the faulty intelligence and said he accepts “full responsibility, without exception and without excuse”. In the end, however, he said he did not accept that it would have been better to leave Saddam Hussein in place. 

Sir John Chilcot presented the Iraq Inquiry Report at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster on July 6, 2016

Millions of people around the world protested against the decision to invade Iraq. In February 2003, as many as two million people demonstrated against the build-up to the war in central London. On February 15 of that same year, three million people demonstrated in Rome, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest anti-war demonstration ever.

Much of the discussions in the run-up to the debate focused on UN Security Council resolution 1441 from November 2002, which ordered the government of Iraq to compile a complete list of “all aspects of its programmes to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons” as a “final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations”. It warned that Iraq would “face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations of its obligations”. Reports say diplomats at the meeting made clear that this did not contain “hidden triggers” for an invasion without further approval by the security council. Despite concerted efforts the US and its allies were not able to obtain a second resolution by the UN Security Council authorising the war, which led many to question its legality.

Speaking to The World Weekly from Baghdad, journalist Mustafa Habib said Iraqis from all backgrounds initially welcomed the ouster of Saddam Hussein, but things changed quickly after the US made several fateful decisions in the immediate aftermath of the invasion.

Two key decisions in this regard were implemented by Ambassador Paul Bremer, a senior US diplomat with no prior Middle East experience who led the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) of Iraq until June 28, 2004. The first one was the disbandonment of the Iraqi Army and the entire security apparatus, leaving at least 300,000 (some estimates are higher) armed men out of work. 

“Here began the disaster,” Mr. Habib said, as it stirred hatred against US forces, especially among senior Sunni officers, and led to the emergence of militant groups. 

The CPA also mandated that no members of the Ba’ath party above a certain rank were able to hold any public service positions, a decision which experts say showed little understanding of why people joined the party under the previous regime. 

Somewhat symbolic of the situation he left behind, Paul Bremer, the man who headed the CPA and thus had a major impact on Iraq’s trajectory, was flown by helicopter to Baghdad airport instead of taking the airport road as it was deemed too dangerous after handing power to the country’s designated Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in a rather small-scale ceremony in 2004. “Fear of anti-aircraft fire made him take part in an elaborate subterfuge to conceal the identity of the plane on which he finally left Iraq,” Professor Tripp wrote. 

“The majority of Iraqis now say that after 13 years of US-led invasion the situation in the days of Saddam Hussein's rule was better than the current situation,” Mr. Habib said, adding that this showed the magnitude of the tragedy experienced by Iraqis since 2003. The anger many Iraqis feel towards the ruling class was on display this week when residents of the Karrada district, the site of Sunday’s massive attack, threw stones at the convoy of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

The result [of the invasion] was a troubled and increasingly insecure country in which insurgency, lawlessness and sectarian conflict claimed growing numbers of Iraqi lives, in addition to taking a mounting toll on the occupation forces.” - Charles Tripp, Iraq scholar and Professor of Politics in the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies

“All the Iraqi people, not just me, they blame the leaders,” one Karrada resident told the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen. Mr. Habib concurred, telling The World Weekly that while the US was mainly responsible for the collapse of Iraq, the lack of governance experienced by the ruling Shia parties and the way they antagonised former Sunni army officers were also to blame.

Local TV channel Al Sumaria estimated that 7,128 civilians were killed between January 1 and July 2, 2016, 91% of them in explosions.

Not all Iraqis were opposed to the invasion. One major grouping that welcomed and aided the ouster of Saddam Hussein were the Kurds, who govern a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq. Dr. Mohammed Shareef, a lecturer at the University of Exeter, said the Kurds still view the invasion favourably, seeing the effort “as a liberation from a cruel and ruthless regime that could not have been defeated without American military might”.

Historian Charles Tripp notes that in the post-invasion era, “a host of new and original Iraqi voices” were brought to the fore in an environment which in comparison to the extremely tight grip of the Ba’athist state enabled a flurry of new media organisations amidst increased freedoms of expression and more space for non-governmental organisations and trade unions to operate. However, until this day the security situation and government and militia interference continue to threaten such freedoms.

The decision to go to war in Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power in a coalition of over 40 countries led by the USA, was the hardest, most momentous, most agonising decision I took in 10 years as British prime minister.” - Tony Blair, former British prime minister on July 6, 2016

The invasion and the rise of Islamic State

The question to what extent the 2003 invasion contributed to the rise of IS is one of the most pressing issues regarding the legacy of the intervention. 

The 2003 invasion created an environment in which IS’ precursors were able to flourish as the decision to leave several hundred thousand armed men without a job overnight and discriminatory policies against Iraq’s Sunni minority under successive Shia-led governments made it easier for militant organisations to recruit people. 

While he had argued that an invasion was in part necessary to prevent extremist groups from obtaining WMDs and protect the UK, Mr. Blair had been warned that an invasion of Iraq was expected to heighten the threat level posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates to the UK and its interests. 

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair apologised for the mistakes in planning and intelligence, but not the decision to go to war

The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), led by Sir John Scarlett, warned about such a risk multiple times, saying in October 2002, “the greatest terrorist threat in the event of military action against Iraq will come from al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists”. Such warnings, another one issued on February 10, 2003, around a month before the invasion, also included that the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime could mean that “Iraqi chemical and biological material could be transferred to terrorists including al-Qaeda”, thus directly contradicting the former prime minister’s claim laid out above. What is more, JIC assessments saw cooperation between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda as “unlikely”.

The threat from Al Qaida will increase at the onset of any military action against Iraq… The worldwide threat from other Islamist terrorist groups and individuals will increase significantly.” - Joint Intelligence Assessment, February 10, 2003

Mr. Habib, the Iraqi journalist, points out that the ranks of both IS and its predecessors, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, were filled with former officers and soldiers from the regime of Saddam Hussein, who brought significant intelligence and fighting experience with them.

Commenting to The World Weekly on whether the US and UK could be seen as responsible for the rise of IS, Colonel Wilkerson said militant forces such as IS would have emerged even without the 2003 invasion “since they were in large part a result of Western - particularly US, UK and France - policies over the post-WWII period; but the release would have been gradual, manageable, and less dangerous to both regional and global stability.” 

US Army Staff Sgt. Jerrime Bishop on patrol with the Iraqi National Police in Narhwan in 2007

Thirteen years later

Clare Short, a cabinet minister under Mr. Blair who resigned after the 2003 invasion, has been unequivocal about her assessment of the former prime minister’s behaviour in the lead-up to the war, repeatedly telling the media that Mr. Blair “lied” to cabinet and withheld legal documents. 

In a press conference held after the report’s publication, Mr. Blair was defensive about his conduct, saying he could look the nation in eye and say he did not mislead it, also targeting those who portrayed him as not caring about the loss of lives. He criticised the authors of the report for not considering what could have happened if Saddam Hussein had remained in power. He made it clear that he could not apologise for the decision to go to war, but for mistakes in planning and for the intelligence that turned out to be wrong. 

Tony Blair (L) visited George W. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002

For many, the report is likely not going to bring the closure or justice they are seeking, partly because no direct opinion was given on the legality of the invasion in the first place. The fact that the violence during and after the invasion killed (by some estimates) up to one million Iraqis, tore communities apart and facilitated the rise of IS is for many observers evidence enough when assessing the war and its impact. 

“For Iraqis - it’s over. It’s too late,” Jaber Jaberi, an Iraqi MP, told the Financial Times. “At this point this is just an internal issue for British politics more than making any big difference for Iraqis… The invasion got rid of one dictator. Then it brought Iraqis 100 dictators.”

At a time when our discussion of Iraq, as of everything else, threatens to collapse into solipsism, we need to remember our obligations to a country that we have helped to ruin.” - the Guardian, editorial on July 5, 2016

The publication of the report does, however, raise the question whether this will be the last (official) word on the Iraq war in the UK. Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, which organised the mass 2003 protests in Britain, did not think so. “The inquiry is an indictment of Blair and those around him. Chilcot was very critical of nearly every aspect of the war but it was set up to have no legal outcome. So this can't be the end of the matter,” she told The World Weekly. “There has to be political and legal justice. The movement will campaign even more now for him to be held to account.” 

The report acknowledged the driving force of the US in the lead-up to and aftermath of the invasion. In the US, there has been no inquiry into the Iraq War of a similar scale of the Chilcot report, but there have been and still are voices that want George W. Bush and his senior leadership to be held accountable and charged in a court. 

The US Congress has conducted several investigations into the Iraq War. A US Senate Intelligence Committee report, the result of three years of work, in 2006 said it found little or no evidence that backs claims made about Iraq’s WMD programme. Prior to that, the Silberman-Robb commission said that intelligence saying that Saddam was developing WMDs was “dead wrong”. In December 2006, the high-profile Iraq Study Group set up by Congress said the situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating”. Despite these findings, no senior Bush administration official has been held accountable.

Shortly before his presidency ended in 2009, two Congressmen, Dennis Kucinich and Robert Wexler, initiated impeachment procedures against Mr. Bush with much of the argumentation focused on the Iraq War. After the measure was passed to the Judiciary Committee no further action was taken and Mr. Bush ended his presidency several months later. 

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2012 called for both George W. Bush and Tony Blair to be taken to the International Criminal Court in The Hague over the war. “In a consistent world, those responsible for this suffering and loss of life should be treading the same path as some of their African... peers who have been made to answer for their actions in The Hague,” Bishop Tutu wrote in the UK’s Observer newspaper. Writing in the Guardian, Geoffrey Robertson QC, who served as the first president of the UN’s Special Court for Sierra Leone, said that while the invasion was an unlawful breach of the UN charter, it was highly unlikely that Tony Blair could be tried as the UK has not yet ratified an ICC amendment making the crime of aggression triable in The Hague and aggression is also not defined as a crime under British domestic law.

The Chilcot report heavily criticised Tony Blair (R), here seen visiting British troops in Basra on January 4, 2004

In a reaction to the Chilcot report, a spokesman for Mr. Bush echoed statements made by Tony Blair: “Despite the intelligence failures and other mistakes he has acknowledged previously, President Bush continues to believe the whole world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power.”

Calls for accountability in the US have ranged from former President Bush, his Vice-President Cheney and other senior staff to be tried for war crimes to the formation of a truth commission, the latter proposed by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. The United States is, in contrast to the UK, not a member of the International Criminal Court. 

Commenting in a debate hosted by The World Weekly, Landon Shroder, chief executive of Applied Mathematics, who worked in Iraq for seven years after 2003, said: “Unless there is a global consensus on the potential crimes committed by the coalition at large, then singling out George W. Bush as the sole perpetrator negates the very real challenges in preventing disastrous foreign policy decisions like this from happening again”.

When asked whether there was a chance for a similar inquiry to be set up in the US, Colonel Wilkerson was pessimistic. “I am fully in favour of an accountability process, one that results in significant accountability for senior leaders such as Vice President Dick Cheney, and lawyers such as David Addington, but I do not believe such a process is possible in the United States,” he said.

In retrospect, the US and UK can hardly be held responsible for everything that has happened to Iraq since 2003, as many of the country’s problems are linked to poor governance, including sectarian policies and corruption, by successive Iraqi governments post-2003. However, they are responsible for circumventing the UN Security Council, thus weakening its authority as the Chilcot report says, and using faulty intelligence and ignoring other intelligence warnings to justify an invasion that led to the deaths of at least hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of foreign troops as well as contributing to the explosive rise of IS. 

“The UK military role in Iraq ended a very long way from success,” Sir John said.

The World Weekly is hosting a debate on its new Live Debating System on the Iraq War.

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