LONDON // Tony Blair used faulty intelligence to lead Britain into a war in Iraq that was badly planned, woefully executed and legally questionable.
The intelligence was presented by the former prime minister “with a certainty that was not justified” as he persuaded the UK parliament to join the US-led invasion in 2003, the long-awaited Iraq inquiry concluded on Wednesday.
The 2.5-million-word report, the result of a seven-year, £10 million (Dh47m) inquiry chaired by career civil servant Sir John Chilcot, stops short of accusing Mr Blair of personally seeking to exaggerate the threat posed by the regime of Saddam Hussein to justify the invasion.
However, it concludes that the decision to attack was made “on the basis of flawed intelligence assessments” which were not challenged by the British government “and should have been”.
After the publication of the report Mr Blair said: “I believe we made the right decision and the world is better and safer” without Saddam Hussein.
Later he came close to tears when he said the decision to go to war had been “the hardest, most momentous, most agonising decision I took in 10 years as British prime minister”, and he had “more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe”.
Sir John said the people of Iraq had “suffered greatly” as a result of the invasion and subsequent instability. By July 2009, he said, this had “resulted in the deaths of at least 150,000 Iraqis – and probably many more – most of them civilians”.
Listening to his words were families of some of the 179 British servicemen and women who died in Iraq before the UK’s withdrawal in April 2009. Sir John paid tribute to them, but added: “We should all recall the continued suffering of innocent people in Iraq.”
The report was published three days after 250 people were killed by a truck bomb in Baghdad, the single deadliest attack in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.
Saddam Hussein, concludes the report, was “undoubtedly a brutal dictator who had attacked Iraq’s neighbours, repressed and killed many of his own people, and was in violation of obligations imposed by the UN Security Council”.
But the UK, Sir John said, “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” and “the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for UK military action were far from satisfactory”.
On March 14, 2003, Britain’s attorney general had asked Mr Blair to confirm that Iraq had committed further material breaches of UN Resolution 1441. “Mr Blair did so the next day,” says the report, but “the precise basis on which Mr Blair made that decision is not clear”.
Much of the blame is laid at the door of Britain’s intelligence community, among which there had been an “ingrained” but unjustified belief that not only had Iraq retained and was planning to enhance its chemical and biological capabilities, which it had somehow managed to conceal from UN inspectors, but was also plotting to acquire a nuclear capability.
On September 24, 2002, Mr Blair had told the House of Commons that the threat from Iraq’s WMDs, which proved later to be non-existent, was real. That threat was spelt out in a simultaneously published public report, which later became known as the “dodgy dossier”. The inquiry concluded: “The judgments about Iraq’s capabilities in that statement, and in the dossier published the same day, were presented with a certainty that was not justified.”
In fact, concludes the report, the Joint Intelligence Committee intelligence “should have made clear to Mr Blair that the assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt either that Iraq had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued”.
In his response to the report, Mr Blair said he remained convinced “that it was better to remove Saddam Hussein”. He did not accept that doing so was “the cause of the terrorism we see today whether in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world”.
The report “should lay to rest allegations of bad faith, lies or deceit. Whether people agree or disagree with my decision to take military action against Saddam Hussein, I took it in good faith and in what I believed to be the best interests of the country.”
He rejected Sir John’s allegation that there had been a rush to war but conceded that the intelligence assessments had “turned out to be wrong”.
The aftermath of the invasion, he said, had been “more hostile, protracted and bloody than ever we imagined”.
The Chilcot report has not expressed a view on whether Britain’s military action was legal, a question that was not part of its brief and which could be resolved, it noted, “only … by a properly constituted and internationally recognised court”.
However, many, including some of the relatives of dead British soldiers, are now calling for Mr Blair to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. Protesters against the war gathered outside the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in Westminster as Sir John was speaking, some holding placards bearing the single word the “Bliar”.
At a press conference held by relatives of the war dead immediately after the report was published, the mood was one of relief, tempered by anger and grief, with many in tears.
“Now we know where we stand and what we can do,” said Pauline Graham, whose grandson Gordon Gentle was just 19 when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra in June 2004. “Tony Blair should be taken to court for trial for murder. He can’t get away with this any more.”
Mark Thompson, the father of Kevin Thompson, a 21-year-old private in the Royal Logistic Corps who was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra in May 2007, said his son had died in vain in “an illegal war”. Mr Blair had “destroyed families” and “should be stripped of everything he has for what he’s done”.
During a debate in the House of Commons following the publication of the report, respected veteran Labour MP Frank Field said Mr Blair should apologise for a “gigantic political error” that had “resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, as well as 179 British soldiers”.
As a result of the decision, he said, the Middle East had been “thrown into chaos. Tony Blair maintains he has nothing to apologise for. If this record is not one which warrants an apology, it is difficult to think what is.”
National and international reaction to the inquiry’s findings will unfold over the next few days as the report is digested, but one of the most significant responses is expected to come from the ICC.
The court is currently conducting a preliminary examination to determine whether or not there is a basis for opening a full investigation into what took place in Iraq and would consider the Chilcot report “as part of its due diligence of assessing all relevant material that could provide further context to the allegations of war crimes by British troops in Iraq”.
* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse