It is almost 20 years since Col Tim Collins gathered his troops in the dusty desert on the eve of battle and made an impassioned speech with echoes of Shakespeare, declaring their role was to “liberate, not conquer” Iraq.
“If you are ferocious in battle, remember to be magnanimous in victory,” he said in a heartfelt address that echoed around the world — even reportedly earning a place on the wall of the White House’s Oval Office.
It was March 19, 2003, when he addressed 1,600 British soldiers of the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment Battle Group as they camped at Fort Blair Mayne in the Kuwaiti desert, about 30 kilometres from the Iraqi border.
His mission was to lead the British forces in the joint US-led invasion of Iraq amid fears dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
The furore surrounding the impending invasion had gone on for months but the coalition achieved its objective — the overthrow of Saddam's regime — within weeks.
As it turned out, those who made the decision to go to war have, for years, been painted as statesmen on the wrong side of history with a lasting legacy of public mistrust after it was concluded there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
For Col Collins, that moment as he stood in the desert addressing his troops is still clear in his mind.
“The war had started without our expectation. It took us by surprise, there was no time to prepare, this whole enterprise began before we expected it to happen,” he told The National.
“We all thought this time next year it will all be sorted out.
“I had no time to prepare a speech, it was just me talking to my troops to reassure them. I never expected my words to live on. The speech I made was to my soldiers for their benefit alone.
“As far as I was concerned, we had to get on and cross the border. Everybody tried to get on with the job and we needed to get out of the camp as quickly as we could as there was a possibility it might be attacked. We needed to get to the starting position in Iraq the following day.
“At the time, we were not sure what we were hoping to achieve. It was all very confused, but one thing was clear: Iraq was on our side, we were going to liberate them. There was a great deal of goodwill and it’s sad to see how things turned out.”
Unplanned war pushed Iraq into chaos
By April, the objectives of the invasion had been completed but the fallout lasted years longer.
Within a month, Col Collins had returned to the UK. Within two months, the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had disbanded the Iraqi army that surrendered to the invading forces.
Col Collins traces the country's descent into mayhem to the “Walt Disney script” that the CPA was following.
“It was people at the highest level making decisions to disband the army without any idea what they were doing,” he said.
“It was a Walt Disney approach by the US, treating it like a cartoon, and the British were just poodles obeying everything that was said and it was a disaster.”
Col Collins said initially they felt the operation had been a success, but as the months rolled on, it was clear Iraq was not on the path to recovery.
“When we crossed the border, there was a great deal of confusion and chaos in Iraq. They were very welcoming and had very good ideas about what should be done to get it back on a good footing,” he said.
“At the time, we didn’t really know it had gone wrong, even at the time we left, there was still a good deal of goodwill, but it deteriorated pretty quickly into the summer — there was a lot of friction.
“It was very unpleasant. There was a combination of not enough planning at the start which made a difficult situation worse. The strokes of genius at the highest levels created the perfect storm.”
He still feels anger over the “mistakes” made by those “at the highest level”, from decisions to disband Iraq’s army to the coalition's decision to eventually leave.
“By embracing Iraq’s military, they could have brought order, but by disbanding the Baath Party they disbanded everybody,” he says.
“There was no police, electricians, civil servants — they disbanded everybody who could read and write and it was no surprise the place then descended into chaos.
“Because the army had been disbanded, any group wanting to take up arms to carry on its own activities could. There was more chaos for years.
“When we thought it couldn’t get any worse, US President Barack Obama took the decision to leave and left the Iranians to do what they wished. That was a huge mistake.”
Over the past 20 years, Col Collins, now retired, has repeatedly returned to Iraq and helped to train and mentor its security services.
First elections offered a false start
His return to the country in 2005 was on an assignment to cover the elections. He found cities and towns a far cry from what he might have expected when he left two years earlier.
“It was a completely different place, it was utter chaos,” he said.
“The elections were chaos, there was a great deal of violence and everybody voted for the people from their own backgrounds. The government didn’t form and there was more chaos for years as there was very little interest in relationship building.
“It is just a fairly unhappy story.”
Battle speech made into a documentary
For Col Collins, his rallying speech still lives on and the role he played is entrenched in history.
So famous are his words that actor Sir Kenneth Branagh played Col Collins's role in the television drama 10 Days to War.
“Who wouldn’t want to be played by him?” Col Collins asked, chuckling.
The fallout of the war was again brought to the fore in 2016, with the UK’s publication of the long-awaited Iraq Inquiry, also known as the Chilcot report, which criticised the decision of former prime minister Tony Blair to go to war.
Iraq inquiry findings came too late
The report's author, Sir John Chilcot, concluded the UK chose to join the invasion before peaceful options had been “exhausted”.
“Military action at that time was not a last resort,” Sir John said.
It found Mr Blair had “deliberately” exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam and concluded US president George Bush had ignored UK advice on postwar planning for Iraq.
The Chilcot report identified a series of major blunders by the British intelligence services that produced “flawed” information about the dictator’s alleged weapons of mass destruction — the basis for going to war.
“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Col Collins said.
“But the Chilcot report took so long that by the time it was published, the issues had gone flat and there was no appetite for it. It was probably a deliberate decision.”
Col Collins will mark the 20th anniversary of the invasion in the UK and will be returning to Iraq in the summer.
In 2006, the former SAS officer, who was nicknamed Nails by his troops, cofounded defence contractor New Century to improve nations’ intelligence services and to train the security sector.
Working with former officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary special branch and the Irish Garda Siochana special branch, Col Collins’s firm has been mentoring Iraqi police and training the country's army’s intelligence arm.
His counter-insurgency advisers helped train Iraqi forces in tactics developed during the Northern Ireland Troubles.
“I feel responsible for something other people did,” he said. “Twenty years on and a lot of heartache later, the big difficulty they still have is a very evil actor at work in the form of Iran. I think Iraq has had enough and they just want to get their country back together.
“I spend three to four months there once or twice a year. It is much more stable than before but tensions are festering.
“I hope they are able to take control of their country and get rid of the malignant influences that are harming them, particularly from Iran.
“Looking back, it has all been deeply regrettable.”