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The Iraq Inquiry: Blair’s Blunder in Iraq

July 7, 2016

Only a few days ago over 250 Iraqis were killed in a barbaric suicide bombing attack in central Baghdad. Ironically, yesterday the findings of the United Kingdom’s (UK) anticipated Iraq Inquiry (Chilcot Report) were released. The 2003 invasion of Iraq stands as perhaps the greatest foreign policy blunder of the 21st century, with its destabilizing and devastating ramifications still being felt in the Middle-East today.

Conveniently the Iraq Inquiry examines the United Kingdom’s involvement in the Iraq War, concluding that ‘the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at the time was not a last resort.’ Casting doubt on the legitimacy of Tony Blair’s decision to join the United States in invading Iraq (an act unsanctioned by the UN Security Council), the Iraq Inquiry makes some interesting findings on various aspects of the UK’s Iraq War strategy.

The following summary highlights the main conclusions of the Inquiry relating to the UK Government’s role in the Iraq War:

– The severity of the threat posed by Saddam’s regime was overstated. Judgments about the severity of the threat posed by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were not justified

– The ‘precise [legal] basis’ on which Blair made his decision to invade Iraq was not clear

– Intelligence information had not established ‘beyond doubt’ that Iraq was continuing to ‘produce chemical and biological weapons’ or that it was exerting efforts to develop nuclear weapons

– Blair’s ‘policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments’

– Severe shortfalls existed in planning and preparation for the war

– Risks of internal violence, Iranian interference, ‘regional instability’ and ‘Al-Qaeda activity in Iraq’ were ‘explicitly identified before the invasion’

– The UK Government’s preparations after the invasion, while it was an occupying power, failed to appreciate the ‘magnitude of the task of stabilizing, administering and reconstructing Iraq, and of the responsibilities which were likely to fall to the UK’

The Iraq Inquiry’s scathing critique exposes the degree of flawed justifications, erroneous decision-making and incompetent planning that characterized the Blair administration’s approach to the Iraq War. Notably, the deficiencies of actions taken by the Blair government across numerous areas within its control are crucially significant given the protracted and bloody aftermath of the 2003 invasion.

Pre-Conflict Strategy

– Blair’s initial objective of ‘disarming Iraq’ eventually aligned with that of supporting George W Bush’s strategy of ‘regime change’

– ‘I will be with you, whatever’ – the words penned by Blair on a note to then US president George W Bush on 28 July 2002

– Blair “prophetically” argued in Parliament that the war would ‘determine the pattern of international politics for the next generation’

Legal Basis for Action

– ‘The circumstances in which it was ultimately decided that there was a legal basis for UK participation were far from satisfactory’

– Blair and his associates initially sought a second UN Security Council resolution in addition to Resolution 1441 for the authorization of the use of force against Iraq. By 2003 this changed as Blair anticipated war, fully supporting the US and ‘was focused on the need to establish evidence of an Iraqi breach [of Resolution 1441], to persuade opinion of the case for action and to finalize the strategy with President Bush’ by end of January 2003

– Providing legal advice for Blair’s government, Lord Goldsmith initially advised ‘a further Security Council resolution’ for ‘future military action’. However it was not until 13 March 2003 that Lord Goldsmith arrived at a ‘better view’ and decided there was ‘a secure legal basis for military action’ based on satisfaction ‘of the fact that Iraq was in breach of resolution 1441’. Days later on the 19th of March, the invasion of Iraq began

– Policy should have been considered by a Cabinet Committee and then discussed by Cabinet itself

– Interestingly, ‘the explanation for military action put forward by Mr Blair in October 2004 was not the one given before the conflict’

Weapons of Mass Destruction

– From July to September 2002, ‘the assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons’. ‘Nor had the assessed intelligence established beyond doubt that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued’

– Blair was aware of Security Council reports released in February 2003 which found no evidence of WMD in Iraq

– On 25 February 2003, Blair told the House of Commons that ‘intelligence was clear’ regarding Saddam’s intentions concerning his ‘WMD programme’

– In 2004, Labour Party MP Robin Cook (who resigned over the war) pointed out in Parliament that ‘Iraq probably has no WMD’

Serious or Imminent Threat

– In 2001 the JIC determined ‘Saddam Hussein had refused to permit any Al Qaeda presence in Iraq’ and that evidence of contact between Bin Laden and Iraq was ‘fragmentary and uncorroborated’

– In the House of Commons on March 2003, Blair explained his concerns about nuclear proliferation, chemical and biological weapons capabilities as well as the possibility of terrorist organisations obtaining and using weapons of mass destruction. According to Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) Assessments, no basis existed for supporting the idea that Iraq represented a threat in relation to mixed concerns of terrorism and weapons proliferation

– Blair acknowledged the association between the threat of terrorism and WMD (supposedly in the hands of Saddam’s regime) was ‘loose’ but deemed ‘the possibility of the two coming together’ as a ‘real and present danger to Britain and its national security’

– ‘Intelligence and assessments were used to prepare material to be used to support Government statements in a way which conveyed certainty without acknowledging the limitations of the intelligence’

– The JIC Assessment of February 2003 concluded ‘Al Qaeda and associated groups will continue to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat will be heightened by military action against Iraq’. However, Blair maintained backing down would’ve been wrong

– JIC Assessments viewed Iraq ‘as a less serious proliferation threat than other key countries of concern – Iran, Libya- and North Korea’

Post-Saddam and Post-Conflict Period

– Blair’s planned deference to the US regarding ‘planning for the post-conflict period’ was based on unfounded concerns pertaining to the US and UK relationship and co-operation as well as his belief that this was ‘the best way to influence US policy’ towards the UK’s preferred direction

– Acknowledging the US’s ‘major intelligence failure’ concerning Iraq and its supposed WMD, the Inquiry affirmed ‘that there had been failings in the UK’s pre‑conflict collection, validation, analysis and presentation of intelligence on Iraq’s WMD’

– There was a failure to adequately plan for a post-Saddam Iraq – the UK expected issues which concerned ‘restoring infrastructure’, administering the state and providing security. Blair had not established ‘clear Ministerial oversight of post-conflict strategy, planning and preparation’

– Poor planning and preparation affected the development of a post-Saddam Iraq with instability and an ‘insecure environment’ hindering ‘progress on reconstruction’

– UK assumptions regarding US leadership of the ‘immediate post-conflict effort’ concealed important risks that Blair was already aware of

– Prior to the invasion in March 2003, ‘Mr Blair received warnings about consequences of the aftermath, ‘likelihood of internal conflict’, security challenges and ‘the absence of credible US plans for the immediate post-conflict period’

– A divergence in strategies existed for withdrawal between the US and the UK, especially as Bush announced a ‘surge’ in January 2007 whilst the UK ‘continued to look towards withdrawal’

Key Findings and Lessons

– ‘The Iraq of 2009 certainly did not meet the UK’s objectives as described in

January 2003: it fell far short of strategic success. Although the borders of Iraq were the same as they had been in 2003, deep sectarian divisions threatened both stability and unity. Those divisions were not created by the coalition, but they were exacerbated by its decisions on de‑Ba’athification and on demobilization of the Iraqi Army and were not addressed by an effective programme of reconciliation’

– ‘Between 2003 and 2009, UK forces in Iraq faced gaps in some key capability areas, including protected mobility, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) and helicopter support’. The UK had overlooked such capability gaps


– The Inquiry emphasized that the need to be sure political objectives can be achieved before committing them when deciding to go to war

– ‘For any future military operations, arrangements tailored to meet the circumstances of each operation need to be put in place in both London and on the ground before operations begin’

– Planning for the post-conflict period required a greater recognition of the socio-political, economic and cultural context of the ‘theater of operations’, a greater appreciation of risks involved and more efficient and effective resource allocation

– Reconstruction plans should also ‘incorporate a range of options appropriate to different contingencies’ and offer a ‘realistic assessment’ of ‘resources and capabilities’ harbored by the UK and its partners

– Consideration of the ‘far-reaching consequences’ of policies such as de-Ba’athification on the ‘public sector’ and ‘trust in the institutions of government’ need to be evaluated when determining the scope of such measures

In the wake of the Inquiry, Blair in a lengthy statement expressed his ‘sorrow and regret’ over the war and stated he takes ‘full responsibility’.  Nevertheless he maintained ‘the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein’ who he deemed ‘a threat to world peace’, showing no regret for his decision to invade Iraq. Unsatisfied relatives of fallen British soldiers have already reacted negatively towards Blair in light of the Chilcot Report.

Yesterday George W Bush celebrated his 70th birthday; an occasion which his Middle-Eastern crusade denied to many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Whilst the Iraq Inquiry is a welcome development, providing an exceptional insight into UK policy in the lead up to and during the Iraq War, it is of little solace to the millions of Iraqis affected by the ongoing conflict. Sectarian violence, the scourge of ISIS, internal displacement, security concerns and issues associated with the current Iraqi administration plague Iraq today. Hopefully with the benefit of the findings and lessons in the Chilcot Report, the mistakes of 2003 will never be repeated.

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