Lord Hain tells researchers pre-war Iraq intelligence was a 'total lie'

Labour MPs say Tony Blair committed the UK to stand with the US as it marched into Baghdad

Lord Peter Hain speaks to demonstrators protesting against Boris Johnson's Brexit strategy in Parliament Square in 2019. Getty
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A leading cabinet minister under former UK prime minister Tony Blair's government has endorsed accusations that the government put forward bogus intelligence to justify the launch of the Iraq War two decades ago.

Lord Peter Hain, a former Northern Ireland Secretary and Foreign Office minister, said he now felt he had been taken in by the government's use of concocted information from the spy agencies.

“I genuinely believed the intelligence has proven to be absolutely false,” he said.

“So, we went to war on a total lie. And had I known that it was false at the time, I would have not supported it.”

On March 18, 2003, the UK House of Commons approved military intervention in Iraq. In the face of critical media commentary, the largest street protests ever across the UK and hostility within its own party, the New Labour government proposed and supported a motion to commit British troops to invade Iraq.

A report by the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) that talked to the MPs involved in the debate revealed lingering anger 20 years on that weapons of mass destruction were presented as the main motive for intervention.

The authors say this was the basis upon which many MPs voted in favour of UK deployment.

“It never occurred to me for a minute that Blair wasn’t convinced that weapons of mass destruction were there,” said Conservative MP Crispin Blunt.

“And we were going to find them. And on that basis, he was therefore recommending going to war.”

Across the Middle East, the action was seen as a decision to oust Saddam Hussein and there were doubts raised that this action was launched based on faulty intelligence that the Iraqi leader had amassed an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq was plunged into turmoil after Saddam was toppled.

The foreign troop deployment turned bloody as Al Qaeda and Iran-backed militias waged an overlapping insurgency. Civil war then flared from 2006 to 2008, and in 2014, ISIS captured a third of the country.

British politicians in public life at the time believe the march to war should be seen through the prism of the UK's relationship with the US — in particular Mr Blair's close alignment with George W Bush.

“[Blair] allowed himself to be sort of persuaded by the importance of standing alongside the Americans, rather than taking a more Harold Wilson-type position on the Vietnam War.”

Many MPs, particularly from Labour and the Lib-Dems, were uncomfortable with the Bush narrative which had identified Iraq as an enemy of the US.

“Tony Blair had sort of committed Britain to stand shoulder to shoulder with the USA, onwards from 9/11,” said Labour MP Richard Burden.

The subsequent exposure of the fraudulent claim that Saddam's regime could use WMDs within 45 minutes of an order going out proved decisive in collapsing support for the war, something that then dogged Mr Blair until he stepped down in 2007.

“There was a loss of trust there,” he told the CAABU team.

“The debate had been about whether or not weapons of mass destruction of Saddam was going to reach wherever in 45 minutes. To find out that, actually, they didn’t exist anywhere fundamentally sapped trust. It forever defined Tony Blair’s premiership after that, probably unfairly.”

The report, released on Tuesday, was written by Chris Doyle, the director of CAABU, and Mandy Turner, professor of conflict, peace and humanitarian affairs at the University of Manchester.

Speaking at an online briefing, Mr Doyle, who was heavily involved in briefing MPs and Lords during the Iraq War years, said apart from “the exception of former prime minister Tony Blair”, almost everyone can now agree that the invasion of Iraq was a “disaster”.

He said the West’s attempts at state-building following the fall of Saddam’s regime proved dismal.

“It was so hard to see [how] in the breakdown of the regime you could maintain law and order afterwards,” he said. He added that the West witnessed Iraqi society “crumbling” in the aftermath.

Mr Doyle said British politicians were sorely lacking in knowledge about the Middle East in the run-up to the war and many of those who backed the invasion were likely making an uniformed decision.

He cited one Foreign Office minister, whom he declined to name, as asking officials at the time of the war: “What the difference was between an Arab and a Shia?”

Turning to how Britain and America’s reputations on the international stage were affected by the war, he said both had suffered damage, but particularly that of the US.

“The United States’ influence in the world has declined as a result of the Iraq failure,” he said.

Ms Turner, who gathered evidence from people serving as MPs 20 years ago, said that a widely held view was that, rather than standing on his own feet, “Blair allowed himself to be persuaded” by Mr Bush.

On March 18, 2003, Mr Blair’s motion allowing for military action in Iraq passed a vote in the House of Commons by 412 votes to 149.

Ms Turner cited at least one case of a then-Labour MP being threatened by party whips with deselection at the next general election if they did not vote in line with the government.

Two decades on, she said the question of whether the invasion was legal is “still a matter of contention and dispute”.

She added that a desire to protect regional allies from Saddam’s regime and “neo-Conservative plans to remake the Middle East” were two factors that contributed to the US decision to go to war.

About 30,000 bombs were dropped on Iraq during the war and between 275,000 and 320,000 Iraqi civilians were killed as a direct result of the fighting, Ms Turner said.

“Several times more” Iraqis died as a result of indirect consequences of the war, such as a lack of food or health care.

She added that “it’s impossible to know the true number” of victims of the Iraq war, which triggered a deep sectarian divide between the Sunni and Shia communities.

The war cost the UK £98 million, she said, 89 per cent of which was spent on military operations.

The number of British troops and Ministry of Defence officials who were killed as a direct result of the violence was 179.

Updated: March 14, 2023, 3:26 PM