U.K. Iraq Inquiry Criticizes Blair, Spies Over War Failures

  • Chilcot report finds badly planned invasion wasn’t last resort
  • British military and intelligence services also at fault

U.K. Iraq Inquiry Finds Invasion Wasn’t Last Resort

Britain’s involvement in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was a failure, carried out before peaceful options had been exhausted and based on intelligence that was overstated, an official inquiry concluded.

The investigation into the build up to war, its execution and aftermath is highly critical of government ministers, the intelligence services and the military. But the biggest impact of the report, published Wednesday by former civil servant John Chilcot, will be on the reputation of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, the man responsible for committing British troops.

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“The U.K. chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted,” Chilcot told reporters as he announced the results of his seven-year inquiry. “Military action at that time was not a last resort.”

Judgments about the danger of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction “were presented with a certainty that was not justified” by the underlying intelligence, Chilcot said. The consequences of invasion were “underestimated,” planning for rebuilding Iraq was “wholly inadequate” and the British government “failed to achieve its stated objectives,” he said.

The decision to join the 2003 invasion has hung over Britain ever since. At the time, opposition to the war led to the largest-ever march through London, with estimates of about a million people taking part. In Parliament, a quarter of Blair’s Labour Party voted against him. Subsequent Labour leaders have been chosen partly on the basis of whether they supported action and the party’s current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was a fierce opponent of the war.

Fifth Inquiry

Chilcot’s inquiry is the fifth into the U.K.’s role in the war, and by far the most complete. Previous investigations have looked at intelligence failures and the circumstances surrounding the death of a British weapons scientist, David Kelly. All have been critical of Blair.

The former prime minister responded with an impassioned defense of his decisions, apologizing for errors in the way the war was planned but not for the invasion itself. After setting out his position for almost an hour, he spent nearly as long taking questions, and asking people to put themselves in his shoes.

“If I was back in the same place, with the same information, I would take the same decision,” he said. He urged Britain not to back away from international interventions. “If we’re not prepared to take these kinds of decisions and engage in this way, we will make the world less safe,” he said.

The report risks deepening divisions in Labour at a time when Corbyn is fighting calls from his own lawmakers to resign. Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, the Labour leader was heckled by some on his own side as he described the war as “an act of military aggression launched on a false pretext.”

‘Fundamental Breakdown’

Corbyn said the invasion had “fueled and spread terrorism,” as well leading to “a fundamental breakdown in trust in politics.” Without naming Blair, he said Parliament had been misled at the time and should “deal with” those responsible.

Asked about this later, Blair said Chilcot’s report exonerated him of exaggerating the case for war. “There was no misleading Parliament,” he said. “Go and read the reports, see what was said to me.”

Prime Minister David Cameron, who voted with his party in favor of the war, said those who did so “have to take our fair share of the responsibility. We cannot turn the clock back.” The report was not “accusing anyone of deliberate deceit,” he said.

Chilcot said the question of whether military action was legal was one for an international court, rather than his report. “We have, however, concluded that the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for U.K. military action were far from satisfactory,” he said.

Sofa Government

The report shows how Blair’s working style, known as “sofa government,” meant the decision for Britain to join the invasion took place with few formal meetings or discussions.

In March 2003, at the request of Peter Goldsmith, the then Attorney General, Blair said Iraq had committed “further material breaches” of its obligations. “The precise basis on which Mr. Blair made that decision is not clear,” Chilcot said. He cited it as “one of a number of occasions” when the matter should have been formally discussed by the cabinet.

The report paints a picture of a prime minister trying to stay close to and influence U.S. President George W. Bush, who was determined to invade. Blair’s relationship with Bush meant he was able to persuade the U.S. to go through the United Nations, but didn’t stop Britain’s views being sidelined.

Inadequate Plans

“Ministers were aware of the inadequacy of U.S. plans, and concerned about the inability to exert significant influence on U.S. planning,” Chilcot said. “Mr. Blair eventually succeeded only in the narrow goal of securing President Bush’s agreement that there should be UN authorization of the post-conflict role.”

Blair, he said, should have been prepared to part ways with Bush. “The U.K.’s relationship with the U.S. has proved strong enough over time to bear the weight of honest disagreement,” Chilcot said. “It does not require unconditional support where our interests or judgments differ.”

The report criticized intelligence agencies for never questioning the “ingrained belief” that Iraq still had a chemical and biological weapons program. A dossier published by Blair in September 2002 “was presented with a certainty that was not justified,” Chilcot said, but he cleared Blair’s office of subsequent claims that it had “improperly influenced the text.”

Intelligence Doubts

Instead, he said the Joint Intelligence Committee, responsible for the dossier, “should have made clear to Mr Blair that the assessed intelligence had not established the presence of weapons ‘beyond doubt’.”

“It is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments,” Chilcot said. “They were not challenged, and they should have been.”

Among Chilcot’s other findings:

  • Blair was warned that an invasion would increase the threat from Al Qaeda to the U.K.
  • Blair sent Bush a note in July 2002 beginning: “I will be with you, whatever.” This made it very difficult for Britain to withdraw support. 
  • Britain undermined the authority of the UN Security Council by invading without its support.
  • The drive to send the largest possible U.K. force came from the British military.
  • Blair changed his justification for the invasion after it became clear there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
  • After the invasion, Britain was “fully implicated” in decisions on how to govern Iraq, “but struggled to have a decisive effect.”
  • Britain “failed to take account of the magnitude of the task of stabilizing, administering and reconstructing Iraq.”
  • The Ministry of Defence was “slow in responding to the threat from improvised explosive devices.”
  • The U.K. didn’t have sufficient resources to fight in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • By 2007, U.K. commanders in southern Iraq were in the “humiliating” position of releasing detainees in exchange for militia promises not to attack British forces.

There was a failure across government, the report found. Intelligence agencies didn’t question their own assumptions, the military downplayed difficulties, ministers and officials didn’t challenge the prime minister, while Blair “overestimated his ability to influence U.S. decisions,” Chilcot said.

“Above all, the lesson is that all aspects of any intervention need to be calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigor,” Chilcot said as he summed up. “And when decisions have been made, they need to be implemented fully. Sadly, neither was the case in relation to the U.K. government’s actions in Iraq.”

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