IN LAST Thursday’s House of Commons Iraq Inquiry debate, originally scheduled to follow the publication of the Chilcot inquiry, all the contentious issues surrounding the 2003-08 illegal war resurfaced.
Opening the debate, Tory MP David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) said: ‘I beg to move: “That this House regrets that the Iraq Inquiry has decided to defer publication of its report until after 7 May 2015; and calls on the Inquiry to publish a timetable for publication and an explanation of the causes of the delay by 12 February 2015.”
‘The second Iraq war led to the deaths of more than 4,800 allied soldiers, 179 of them British. The lowest estimate of Iraqi civilian fatalities is 134,000, but plausible estimates put that number four times higher.
‘So let us be clear, at least 134,000 innocent people died. The war created 3.4 million refugees, half of whom fled the country. It cost the British taxpayer £9.6 billion and it cost the American taxpayer $1,100 billion.
‘The war has done untold damage to the reputation of the west throughout the Middle East, and indeed among Muslim populations both at home and abroad. Initiated to protect the west from terrorism, it has in fact destroyed the integrity of the Iraqi state and triggered a persistent civil war that has created the conditions for perhaps the worst terrorist threat yet to the west – ISIL.
‘It has done huge harm to the self-confidence and unity of the west, neutering our foreign policy. The war was, with hindsight, the greatest foreign policy failure of this generation, and I say that as someone who voted for it …
‘As Lady Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5 stated, the invasion of Iraq “undoubtedly increased the threat” of terrorist attacks in Britain.
‘Since the announcement of the inquiry, three major foreign policy decisions would have greatly benefited from the lessons that arose from the Iraq war.
‘In Libya we undertook a military intervention that was intended to prevent a massacre, quite properly. It was successful, but it was the precursor to protracted conflict and unrest following our nominal military victory.
‘In Syria, the Government were blocked by this House from military intervention, an intervention that would have led us to be the military supporters of our now sworn enemies, ISIS.
‘And now in Iraq the UK has become embroiled in the ongoing civil war that has raged since the invasion in 2003.’
Blackburn Labour MP Jack Straw said: ‘I welcome the debate, and in doing so I formally draw the attention of the House to the fact that as Foreign Secretary between 2001 and 2006, I have been a witness before the Iraq inquiry.
‘Of all the many decisions I had to make as a Minister, none was more serious than my decision not just to support military action against the Saddam Hussein regime, but actively to advocate that course in the final speech in the momentous debate in this House on 18 March 2003.
‘The House went on to vote by 412 to 149 in favour of military action if Saddam Hussein failed to meet the terms of an ultimatum presented to him …
Tory MP John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) asked Straw: ‘Is the right hon. Gentleman now going to admit something that his party and a good number of people on my side have not admitted, which is that we went to war on a false premise?
‘There were no weapons of mass destruction. Is he willing to admit that now?’
Straw replied: ‘With great respect, no, and this is not the occasion to do that. I gave extensive evidence to the Iraq inquiry, as I will explain … no witness to the inquiry has remotely been responsible for any of the delays that have occurred to date.
‘Nor, as Mr Blair has made clear in a recent statement, has he or any other witness been involved in delaying the process of declassifying previously sensitive documents.’
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) asked: ‘Is there not then a question as to any obstruction that might have come from the office of George Bush, the former President of the United States, or the current White House, which seem to be very reluctant to reveal the details of correspondence and communication between former Prime Minister Blair and former President Bush?’
Straw: ‘I have no information about any of the process of declassification.’
Tory MP Sir Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) took up the question of Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’: ‘On 18 March 2003, Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, stood at the Dispatch Box and looked Parliament and the nation in the eye and said that the security of the western world was threatened.
‘He was not my party leader, but he was my Prime Minister, and I reached the conclusion, while I was sitting in the Chamber on the Opposition Benches, that it would be irresponsible not to accept his warning and his advice.
‘The question I have asked myself ever since was whether that was the right decision. Twelve years later, we still do not have a definitive answer, and in truth I have regretted that decision that I made to support the Prime Minister, in the absence of clear evidence, ever since.’
Ottaway went on to raise the issue of the death in suspicious circimstances of government weapons expert Dr David Kelly after he was named as the source for Blair’s 45-minutes claim.
The Tory MP said that ‘the inquest conducted by Lord Hutton … concluded that Dr Kelly took his own life …
‘So the question is, how could we be going to war when the Prime Minister of the day, who made the decision to go to war, was not properly briefed about the threat that we faced? I, the House and the nation want to know the answer to that. We expect that the Chilcot inquiry will provide the answers.’
Respect MP George Galloway (Bradford West) told the debate: ‘Dead men cannot tell tales, and Dr David Kelly is not here to answer what I believe were several unwarranted interpretations of events surrounding him given by the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Ottaway) …
‘Everybody knows the answer to the question of why Sir John Chilcot has come forward – a week before our debate, when he knew that it was on the Order Paper – to tell us that this inquiry will not report before the general election.
‘Everybody knows the answer to that, however much flannel is pulled around it. It is to avoid the fact that the report can only highlight the iron-clad consensus that existed at that time between the two Front Benches: the then Prime Minister and his acolytes, only one of whom has the courage to be here today, and the then Leader of the Opposition, who is not here today but whose principal role in these matters was to egg the Prime Minister on to war, bigger and faster, as those of us who were here well remember – bitterly remember.
‘I declare an interest. I am the maker of the film “The Killing of Tony Blair”, which will be out soon, and will no doubt hugely benefit from the postponement of the Chilcot report. In the absence of Chilcot, we will have to be the report …
‘The right hon. Gentleman (Ottaway) says, and many others now say, that they gazed into the Bambi eyes of the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and he was their Prime Minister, so what could they do except follow him over the cliff?
‘What kind of parliamentarian takes such an approach – that because somebody tells you something is true, you must follow them, when the consequences were easily predictable and were predicted by millions of ordinary citizens out in our streets, without the benefit of that education and without the benefit of a seat in this House? …’
Galloway went on to accuse the members of Chilcot’s panel of being ‘proselytisers for the war they were now being asked to inquire into’.
He continued: ‘The principal gatekeeper to the Chilcot inquiry – I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd) for this information; he is in our film, by the way, and very eloquent too – was the principal gatekeeper between the Foreign Office and the intelligence services, and Ministers, in the run-up to the war.
‘Talk about parti pris! These individuals were either unqualified for or disqualified from participation in this inquiry.
‘That this has taken so long and been so expensive would be tolerable if our position in the world had not continued to deteriorate, and the conditions in the world had not continued to deteriorate.
‘I tell the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Straw) – who is, as I said, in the dock here – that he will never escape the consequences of what he has said and done.
‘He looks to me a haunted figure compared with the Spring-Heeled Jack that he used to be – as well he might, because he will never escape this.
‘It will follow him to the grave and into the history books that he proselytised for something which has turned into an unmitigated catastrophe for the world, but also for us.
‘I do not blame Sir Jeremy Heywood – Sir Humphrey. I do not blame even the Chilcot inquiry. I do not blame Tony Blair, at least not for this. I blame us.
‘This is a poor excuse for a Parliament, if only its Members could more clearly see so. It is a poor excuse for a Parliament that sets up an inquiry, funds an inquiry, and then says, three Parliaments on – as the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Tory MP Liam Fox) said – that we might, who knows when, get the fruits of that inquiry.
‘This is Pontius Pilate. This is washing our hands of something that is bleeding us at home and abroad.
‘What do I mean? I mean this. This has cost us millions, yes; it has cost us six years, yes; but the world is hurtling to disaster.
‘The decision that was made in here on the basis of the arguments made by the Government at the time has torn Iraq and its region asunder.
‘It has fantastically, unbelievably and incalculably inflated the danger of extremism, fanaticism and terrorism. Iraq no longer exists as a state.
‘One third of it is controlled by the heart-eating, head-chopping, amputating, crucifying so-called Islamic State.
‘And Members still will not say that they were wrong, let alone the then Prime Minister skating around in Davos – Mr Blair, the former Prime Minister, who still says he was right and would do it all again.
‘Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. The argument for the war was therefore false, if it was not a falsehood. It has been a catastrophe.
‘I told the then Prime Minister, “There are no Al-Qaeda in Iraq, but if you and Bush invade, there will be hundreds of thousands of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.” Little did I know that Al-Qaeda would spawn something even more horrific than Al-Qaeda.
‘I told the then Prime Minister, “The fall of Baghdad will not be the beginning of the end but merely the end of the beginning, and the fanaticism and extremism that you will unleash will travel and cascade everywhere, including on to our own streets.”
‘I will close now, as I see that you are anxious, Mr Deputy Speaker. I close with this.
‘No one outside can really understand how all these political professionals – highly remunerated, highly rewarded, with all their intelligence and education – can have made such a catastrophic error when millions of people outside who did not enjoy those privileges already knew that it would end in the disaster in which it has ended.’
Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC) said: ‘The impact of the war can be measured in bodies. Between March 2003 and May 2011, when UK operations ended, 179 UK armed forces personnel lost their lives in Iraq. Of those, 136 died in combat … the Iraq Body Count project estimates that between 134,000 and 151,000 civilians have been killed as a result of violence in Iraq since March 2003.
‘The number of violent deaths, including combatants, stands at 206,000 and is still growing. The website reports that only yesterday, 26 people were killed in Iraq. That is because Iraq was not left in anything like a stable condition when the UK and US armed forces pulled out in 2011.
‘In March 2005, I visited Iraq and travelled to Basra and Baghdad. It was plain to see then, as it is now, that little preparation had been put into planning for peace after the war ended.
‘It is a distressing place to visit. We found open sewers, a lack of any infrastructure and badly underfunded social services, if any. The thinking in Washington, after all, was that it would take only weeks to get rid of Saddam.
‘A former White House adviser, Kenneth Adelman, said that “demolishing Hussein’s military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk.” Instead, Iraq is a troubled, crippled state. How wrong the establishment was.
‘Six years ago, the inquiry was set up with the express aim of finding out why such a colossal mistake as this war was allowed to be made … The scale of the inquiry was significant. Those of us who had opposed the war from the beginning had some hope that at last we would hear answers to the questions that we had posed since 2002.
‘How disappointing it is for me to stand here today, four years since the inquiry concluded taking evidence, with the knowledge that those answers are no closer to being published …
‘I am a Privy Counsellor and I happen to be a lawyer, so I am able to ask the odd question, but the fact that someone is a Privy Counsellor does not take them any further on from Joe Public on the Clapham omnibus. It was quite ridiculous. Those are some of my misgivings.
‘As I said, I have a particular interest in the transcripts of conversations between the former Prime Minister and the former American President.
‘In 2008, confidential documents were dispatched to my office from an unknown source. The documents showed that discussions had been held between the leaders of the two countries in 2001 and 2002 relating to removing Saddam using military force. Mr Blair had committed us to war even then, before seeing any proof of weapons of mass destruction.
‘My colleague, Adam Price, and I were visited by two very senior Metropolitan police officers, I believe they were from SO13, and questioned (us) about the documents.
‘The fact that they visited us made me believe that the documents were genuine. They were marked “Top Secret”.
‘I believe that one was an American transcript and the other a British transcript.
‘To this day, I have no knowledge of where they came from. I thought that the proper course of action was to say to the police, “I do know where the documents are, but I am not going to make them public until we have an inquiry. When that inquiry is set up, I shall take them to the inquiry personally so that it can look at them.”
‘I therefore decided to hand the documents over to the Chilcot inquiry when it was set up. I have doubts that they ever saw the light of day, but I do not know what has happened.
‘After submitting the documents, nine months went by before I received any response. When one came, it simply informed me that I would not be called to give evidence.
‘That is fine, but I have since found out that the way in which the gatekeeper to the inquiry, Ms Margaret Aldred – the hon. Member for Bradford West (Galloway) referred to her a few moments ago – was appointed as the inquiry’s secretary did not follow the procedures in the civil service code.
‘The Cabinet Office refuses to disclose any paper trail relating to that appointment, if indeed there is one …
‘Margaret Aldred’s appointment showed a glaring conflict of interest, since she had regularly chaired the Iraq senior officials group, which co-ordinated across Government.
‘Ms Aldred met US officials in October 2008 to discuss Iraq, and she even flew to Washington for discussions with her counterparts in the three weeks before the inquiry was announced. It was Ms Aldred’s section of the Cabinet Office that drew up the plans for regime change, and it was the Cabinet Office, the Joint Intelligence Committee and its staff, that produced the so-called dodgy Iraq dossier.
‘What I would like to know is the following. Why has the inquiry stopped publishing documents on its website? It did so for the first year, then it stopped. What is the total number of individuals who have been granted a right to reply to the accusations against them, when were they contacted by the inquiry, and what time scale have they been given to respond? Why has the inquiry been allowed to be so cowed by the establishment?
‘I am afraid that those and many other questions have not yet been answered. I sincerely hope that they are in the near future, because otherwise it will be an affront to democracy, an insult to Parliament and, more importantly, a gross offence to people who have lost loved ones out in Iraq and to the people of Iraq themselves.
‘Democracy demands that something is done urgently, otherwise this Parliament will be the laughing stock of the world.’
Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I do not believe that the House needs to wait to know that the Iraq war was a disastrous episode in British and international history …
‘I strongly suggest that the narrative that Islamic State is able to hide behind and run with has been hugely fuelled by the illegal intervention by the United States and United Kingdom in Iraq from 2003 onwards …
‘I suspect that the Chilcot inquiry will confirm that the Labour Government were obsessed with the special relationship with the United States and allowed their judgment to be not just clouded but eclipsed, out of a desire to be part of the maybe exhilarating experience of being at one with the leader of the free world. I suspect that it will show that UK foreign policy, going back decades, has tended to be simplistic in simply snuggling up to the United States.’
Tory MP Adam Holloway (Gravesham) referred to ‘an inexperienced class of political leaders; ambitious civil servants, most of whom have since been promoted; “can-do” military officers, most of whom have also since been promoted; and experts who were ignored or marginalised’.
Referring to the Afghanistan war, he continued: ‘A senior British general who had been in Kabul attended a Defence Committee meeting, at which he basically tore my head off for being a nay-sayer.
‘When I went back to Kabul a few weeks later on a private trip, I went into his office and said, “General, are we still winning? Ha ha ha!” He said, “If we f***ing are, I’ll be dead by the time we do.” So there was a real mismatch.
‘We also ignore the experts. Of the people who knew anything about Iraq, who suggested it was a good idea to dismantle Ba’athists from the various structures of government? Nobody thought about that.
‘As a soldier I was in Iraq before the war in 1991, and in 2003 I was back on the ground in Iraq, partly with Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria a couple of years ago. I will never forget driving into Mosul literally in the minutes the city was collapsing.
‘It was the first occasion in my time in journalism that I was nursing a submachine gun under the chair of my four-wheel drive. There was the odd body on the streets, chaos and a threatening, nasty environment. American jets were coming down really low to intimidate.
‘I went to the police station, where there were all these Saddam lookalikes. The chief one said to me, “You’re looking for the Americans, aren’t you?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “When you find the Americans, can you get them to send someone up here to tell us what we should do?”
‘That was an amazing thing to hear from an Iraqi an hour after the city had, in effect, capitulated. So I found the Americans and did my business with the colonel and I said to him, “The Iraqi police brigadier wants you to go up there and tell him what his instructions are.” The American colonel said, “You can tell him to go f*** himself”.’
Later, Islington Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn asked who ‘took the extraordinary decision to destroy the whole of the state structures in Iraq after the invasion, dismiss all the armed forces and the police and leave chaos behind?’
Tory MP Bernard Jenkin responded: Yes, it was Ambassador Bremer (The US appointed overseer-News Line).
‘In my paper, I wrote: “The Bremer administration has 3,000 US officials, only 16 of which are Arab speakers. 650,000 Iraqi Government officials have failed to return to work.”
‘There was a complete misappreciation in the first 100 days, the golden 100 days after the invasion, that we were sitting on a volcano. I remember asking questions from the Opposition Benches such as, “What are we going to do about the Iranian insurgents coming over the border?” The border between Iraq and Iran was completely open. There was flat denial that any of this mattered or was actually happening.’