Tony Blair and the Iraq war

A case of smoke and mirrors

We don't need to wait for Chilcot, Blair lied to us about Iraq, asserts Peter Oborne, former political editor-in-chief with the British "Daily Telegraph"

With the help of the BBC and Dr David Morrison, I carried out my own inquiry into the UK's entry into the Iraq War in 2003. The facts are devastating for Blair, for parliament and for all of us.

Some time ago I found myself in conversation with Dr Hans Blix, head of the United Nations weapons inspection team ahead of the Iraq invasion in 2003. Dr Blix told me that Tony Blair’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were simply not an accurate reflection of the intelligence provided to the British government.

"The big difference in the British dossier," Dr Blix told me, "was that they simply asserted that these items were there. But when Mr Blair asserts that there were weapons, well that's an assertion and it was not supported by evidence. Both the UK and the US replaced question marks with exclamation marks. I certainly think it was a misrepresentation."

He was talking about how cautious assessments were turned into bold statements by Blair and the UK government. For example, intelligence chiefs gave this assessment on March 15 2002: "Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles programmes is sporadic and patchy." Three weeks later, the prime minister stridently claimed: "We know that he [Saddam Hussein] has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons."

Shaken by the force of his testimony I eventually said to Dr Blix: "That's devastating. And so basically you are telling me that Mr Blair misrepresented the truth, lied indeed to the British parliament in order to make the case for an illegal war?"

Hans Blix (photo: dpa)
"They misrepresented what we did and they did so in order to get the authorisation that they shouldn't have had" - Dr Hans Blix, head of the United Nations weapons inspection team in Iraq from 2000 to 2003. From 1981 to 1997 he was head of the International Atomic Energy Organisation (IAEO)

He paused. Then he said: "Well, I'm a diplomat, so I'm not using such… such words. But in substance, yes. They misrepresented what we did and they did so in order to get the authorisation that they shouldn't have had."

Lies, delays and a national embarrassment

Dr Blix’s comments were made before Tony Blair claimed to CNN that the information he had received was "wrong". As far as Hans Blix is concerned, Tony Blair misled the British public and parliament about the intelligence he was given.

My conversation with Dr Blix was the culminating moment of my search for the truth about how Britain came to invade Iraq. The renewed postponement of John Chilcot's inquiry into the Iraq war is bound to raise questions.

One report has suggested that Chilcot may push back his report as far as 2017 – no less than seven years late and a full decade after the last British troops pulled out of Iraq in 2007. The delay in his inquiry, commissioned by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009, has become a national scandal.

This is why I approached the BBC and asked the Corporation for permission to carry out my own Chilcot inquiry. I pointed out that most of the testimony to Chilcot was publicly available. I also suggested that we should call our own witnesses. The BBC agreed. A producer, a researcher and I sought answers to the key questions about the lead up to the Iraq war. The results were broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in October 2015.

What we need to know

As background to our work, I asked my friend Dr David Morrison to prepare a series of background narratives on the four crucial questions. These were published by OpenDemocracy and they address four key questions:

Question 1: Did Tony Blair enter into a secret agreement with George W Bush that the UK would support US military action, come what may?

Question 2: Was the information presented by the Blair government on WMD and other matters an accurate reflection of the underlying facts?

Question 3: Was the war legal?

Question 4: Did our military action in Iraq increase the terrorist threat to Britain?

I have known Dr Morrison for more than 12 years. Back in 2003, I read the devastating evidence that he dispatched to the Foreign Affairs Committee, as it made its report into the Iraq war. The Foreign Affairs Committee ignored the thrust of Dr Morrison's arguments. However, they did publish his brilliant paper as a memorandum to their own report.

His paper and a later one on the Committee’s findings, which are still worth reading today, provided devastating evidence that Tony Blair misled the British public about the threat from Saddam Hussein in order to make the case for war.

I have not accepted all of Morrison’s arguments. However, his narratives provided an invaluable basis for our work, because he has a remarkable gift for highlighting like nothing else the key issues.

These documents set out with great clarity the key facts that everyone will need in order to assess whether John Chilcot has produced a fair report. I have summarised Morrison’s most devastating points here.

Sir John Chilcot, chairman of the Iraq inquiry committee (photo: picture alliance/Photoshot)
Neverending inquiry: it remains uncertain as to when Chilcot and his committee will present a final report detailing Tony Blair's role in the Iraq war. High-ranking generals, diplomats and secret service operatives have already been questioned

Tony Blair misrepresented the evidence on WMD

On February 14 2003, Hans Blix told the UN Security Council: "Many proscribed weapons and items are not accounted for. To take an example, a document, which Iraq provided, suggested to us that some 1,000 tonnes of chemical agent were 'unaccounted for'. One must not jump to the conclusion that they exist."

Yet less than a month later, on March 18, Tony Blair told MPs: "When the inspectors left in 1998, they left unaccounted for 10,000 litres of anthrax; a far-reaching VX nerve agent programme; up to 6,500 chemical munitions; at least 80 tonnes of mustard gas and possibly more than 10 times that amount; unquantifiable amounts of sarin, botulinum toxin and a host of other biological poisons; and an entire Scud missile programme. We are asked now seriously to accept that in the last few years – contrary to all history, contrary to all intelligence – Saddam decided unilaterally to destroy those weapons. I say that such a claim is palpably absurd."

Furthermore. Blair neglected to mention that his own intelligence services had advised that even if Saddam still had weapons stockpiled, they would have degraded to the point where they were unusable. There, Tony Blair stated as a fact that proscribed material deemed “unaccounted for” by inspectors actually existed. In doing so, he seriously misled the House of Commons.

Demonstrating against Tony Blair's Iraq lies in London (photo: AP)
Tissue of lies: Tony Blair led Great Britain to war against the dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, in solidarity with the then US President George W. Bush. It subsequently became clear that the reason given for war – the presence of weapons of mass destruction – was spurious. To this day, Blair remains a controversial figure in the UK

According to a 2002 report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), much of Iraq’s pre-Gulf war stocks of chemical and biological agents listed by Blair, if they existed at all, would have degraded to such an extent that they would no longer be effective as warfare agents. The government’s own dossier published a few weeks later referred to the IISS approvingly as "an independent and well-researched overview".

Among other things, the IISS report notes: "As a practical matter, any nerve agent from this period [pre-1991] would have deteriorated by now …" It also says: "Any VX produced by Iraq before 1991 is likely to have decomposed over the past decade …Any G-agent or V-agent stocks that Iraq concealed from UNSCOM inspections are likely to have deteriorated by now. Any botulinum toxin produced in 1989-90 would no longer be useful".

The prime minister didn’t tell MPs any of this on 18 March 2003 when they voted to go to war.

The Iraq war made Britain more vulnerable to terrorist attacks

In the build up to the Iraq war, Blair’s government was repeatedly warned by intelligence chiefs that invading Iraq would dramatically increase the threat of terrorist attacks on UK soil and act as a recruiting tool for al Qaida and other extremists across the world.

Sir David Omand, Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator in the Cabinet Office from June 2003 until April 2005, has testified to Chilcot that the Joint Intelligence Committee [JIC] “judged that the build-up of forces in the Gulf, in the region, prior to an attack on Iraq, would increase public hostility to the west and western interests.

He also said the JIC "warned that AQ [al-Qaeda] and other Islamist extremists may initiate attacks in response to coalition military action. We [the intelligence services] pointed out that AQ would use an attack on Iraq as justification … for terrorist attacks on western or Israeli targets. We pointed out that AQ was already in their propaganda portraying US-led operations as being a war on Islam and that, indeed, this view was attracting widespread support across the Muslim community. "

Former British prime minister Tony Blair (photo: Reuters/B. McDermid)
Admission of guilt: in an interview with CNN broadcast in Oktober 2015, Blair admitted that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is likely to have contributed to the ascendance of IS. Those involved in toppling Saddam in 2003 bear some responsibility for the situation in 2015, Blair continued

"Coalition attacks would, we said, radicalise increasing numbers… [and] that the threat from AQ would increase at the onset of any attack on Iraq and that we should all be prepared for a higher threat level to be announced and for more terrorist activity in the event of war."

In addition, Eliza Manningham Butler, head of MI5 at the time, has testified to Chilcot that the Iraq war "substantially" exacerbated the overall terrorist threat MI5 and fellow services had to deal with. She said there was hard evidence for this, for instance "numerical evidence of the number of plots, the number of leads, the number of people identified, and the correlation of that to Iraq and statements of people as to why they were involved, the discussions between them as to what they were doing."

She added: "By 2003 I found it necessary to ask the prime minister for a doubling of our budget. This is unheard of, it's certainly unheard of today, but he and the Treasury and the Chancellor accepted that because I was able to demonstrate the scale of the problem that we were confronted by."

In the build up to war, Blair’s government was very keen to bring intelligence assessments of the threat from Iraq’s "weapons of mass destruction" to public attention, but it kept silent about the pre-war intelligence assessments that the al-Qaeda threat to Britain would be heightened by British participation in military action against Iraq. Had MPs been aware of these assessments on 18 March 2003, they might not have given a green light to military action.

On that day, Tony Blair did not tell them that al-Qaida activity in Britain would likely increase with murderous effect if they voted for war. On the contrary, he told them that a vote for war was a vote to combat al-Qaida; that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would prevent a future alliance between him and al-Qaida, as a consequence of which al-Qaida would be armed with "weapons of mass destruction".

'Go blame the French'

On 18 March 2003 Tony Blair claimed that France had undermined support for a second UN resolution, which would have authorised the use of force to disarm Saddam. He told the House of Commons: "Last Monday [10 March], we were getting very close with it [the second resolution]. We very nearly had the majority agreement... Then, on Monday night, France said that it would veto a second resolution, whatever the circumstances."

In fact, France said no such thing. On the contrary, in an interview that Monday night, President Chirac made it very clear that there were circumstances in which France would not veto a resolution for war.

Early in the interview, he identified two different scenarios, one when the UN inspectors report progress and the other when the inspectors say their task is impossible – in which case, in his words, "regrettably, the war would become inevitable". That portion reads:

"The inspectors have to tell us: 'we can continue and, at the end of a period which we think should be of a few months' - I'm saying a few months because that's what they have said – 'we shall have completed our work and Iraq will be disarmed'. Or they will come and tell the Security Council: 'we are sorry but Iraq isn't cooperating, the progress isn't sufficient, we aren't in a position to achieve our goal, we won't be able to guarantee Iraq's disarmament'. In that case it will be for the Security Council and it alone to decide the right thing to do. But in that case, of course, regrettably, the war would become inevitable. It isn't today."

From that, it is plain as a pikestaff that there were circumstances in which France would not have vetoed military action, namely, if the UN inspectors reported that they couldn’t do their job. They had never reported this. By contrast, as Hans Blix told the Chilcot Inquiry in 2010, inspectors were given access to every site they asked to visit and inspect: "on no particular occasion were we denied access".

This is not the story the British public was told. The day after Chirac’s interview, on 11 March 2003, Blair took a decision to blame France for the US/UK failure to persuade more than two other members of the UN Security Council (Spain and Bulgaria) to vote for war. We know this from evidence given to the Chilcot inquiry on 19 January 2011 by Stephen Wall, who was Tony Blair’s EU adviser from 2000 to 2004. He confirmed that on that day he had witnessed Tony Blair in a Downing Street corridor give Alastair Campbell "his marching orders to play the anti-French card with the Sun and others".

On the basis of the evidence before Chilcot, there is little reason to doubt that the Blair government misrepresented the intelligence to parliament and to the British public in order to make the case for an illegal war in which 179 British soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died.

The invasion of Iraq was intended to deal with international terrorism. It is plain that the terrorist threat to Britain has increased beyond measure as a result of the decision to go into Iraq.

Peter Oborne

© Open Democracy 2015

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