179 British service personnel and close to one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. Millions of Iraqis were made homeless. Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime came to an end but the war was met with severe criticism for having been badly planned and executed. With British soldiers still engaged in Afghanistan and continued public scepticism over the handling of the Iraq war, William Hague repeatedly pushed for an urgent inquiry into the Gulf campaign so that lessons may be implemented now and in the future.
The path for an inquiry was finally cleared when, in the summer of 2009, the last of the active British troops withdrew from Southern Iraq and handed over military command to US forces. The Iraq Inquiry – under the chairmanship of Sir John Chilcot – was officially launched on 30th July 2009. Its remit was to consider the UK's involvement in Iraq from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009 (including the run-up to the conflict, the military offensive and its aftermath) and how decisions were made and actions taken so as to “establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned ”.
The Inquiry has not had the smoothest of starts. Parliament was to have no say in its remit. Gordon Brown had to perform an almost immediate U-turn on whether evidence may be heard in public. In the end, we were presented with a political fudge with Brown stating that it was up to Sir John to decide how the Inquiry should proceed (the settled position became that hearings would take place in public unless there were compelling reasons of national security not to do so).
The membership of the committee has been criticised for lacking sufficient input from those with military, aid and reconstruction experience. Another bone of contention has been the manner of information gathering. Evidence sessions are to be conducted by the Privy Counsellors who made up the Inquiry Committee (supported by the Inquiry Secretariat and where necessary, specialist advisers) but the lack of senior lawyers has been widely condemned.
In the words of Shadow Justice Secretary, Dominic Grieve:
“Having waited so long for an inquiry into Iraq, it is vital that we learn the whole truth. It is surprising that the inquiry is not benefiting from the probing questioning that an experienced lawyer would provide, particularly when it comes to taking evidence from the witnesses and experts involved .”
Finally, the report on the Inquiry is unlikely to be published until 2011 and as yet, no decision has been taken on whether to provide interim report before the general election.
The first stage of the Inquiry closed on 17th December, examining 38 witnesses over 23 sessions. With the “narrative” to the war established, the next, critical phase of the Inquiry will probe into the legality of the 2003 invasion. On 23rd December, the names of witnesses for the public hearings in January and early February 2010 were released, with Tony Blair amongst those giving evidence. Blair has already courted controversy by stating that if there were no WMD, he would “still have thought it right to remove” Saddam but to do so “obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat”.
Spin of course has always been the instrument of preferred choice under New Labour. Personally, I believe that the time for regime change was during the first Gulf War when Saddam invaded Kuwait. But in 2003, Blair justified military action on the grounds that the Iraqi dictator was in breach of UN-backed demands to abandon the WMD programme. Without evidence of WMD, the basis for war slipped away and without it, both Parliament and the public were severely misled.
There is however one alarming omission from the list of witnesses to be called in the New Year – the Prime Minister. Gordon Brown will avoid having to appear before the Inquiry until after the general election. A statement on the website says the inquiry committee is "determined to remain firmly outside party politics" so will not hear from ministers still in roles about which they would be questioned.
But does not the act of sparing the Prime Minister difficult questions until after in all probability he has been removed from office appear in itself politically motivated or influenced? The Inquiry should have been bolder. Brown cannot somehow escape culpability and hope that the narrative that the Iraq War was “Blair's War” holds up without casting a shadow over the actions or inaction of the Cabinet.
Questions need answering as to how much the Cabinet knew and the extent to which Ministers probed Blair on the planning and implementation of the war and aid and reconstruction effort. Of course, many ex-Ministers will appear before the Committee, including former foreign secretary Jack Straw, former Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith and the conveyor belt of Labour defence secretaries in Des Browne, Geoff Hoon and John Hutton.
But specifically, Brown as the then Chancellor, needs to be brought to account on his assessment of the probable financial cost of the conflict and the needs of the military in terms of resources. One of the most damaging aspects has been the severe under-funding of the military. Fraser Nelson writing in The Spectator has been quick to list a series of questions that Brown should be asked to determine “the extent of his personal culpability in our defeat in Basra and treatment of the troops”.
I do not believe that the public will be placated without the Prime Minister's testimony before the general election and this, together with the delay in publishing the final report until 2011, will add to scepticism that the Inquiry lacks teeth and simply represents a mechanism to summarily deal with certain issues but whitewash the points that matter most. As fresh testimony emerges, more questions will be raised about the extent of the Cabinet's – and Brown's – knowledge and involvement. The intractable position of this Government has only fuelled the public’s suspicion that they were duped as to the reasons for going to war and worse, Britain was ill-prepared for the war and reconstruction effort.
Under this Government, Britain has been led into two wars on a peacetime budget. We are still engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq faces a long road to recovery. As a nation, we face a continuous threat from extremism both home and abroad but the battle to win "hearts and minds” in one of the most politically sensitive regions in the world has been heavily dented over issues surrounding the legality of the Iraq War.
Not only that, Britain and its allies has found itself stretched militarily and financially, with an alarming death toll in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost may even be greater – the extent of our involvement in both countries (together with the size of the UK's public sector deficit amidst the current recession) may have impacted on our ability to pursue military intervention elsewhere in the world in the short to medium term. Certainly, the crisis over Iran's nuclear programme comes to mind as one example.
There will be always be cases where Western military intervention – committed to principles of freedom and democracy – is not only needed but of crucial importance e.g. the invasion of Kuwait. That is the responsibility shouldered by the West and that is why we must not shirk away from rigorously examining the Iraq War, even if the findings prove uncomfortable reading. Each war needs to be properly planned and implemented and pursued on a proper and transparent basis. Where mistakes are made, we must show global leadership in owning up.
Only a satisfactory resolution under the Inquiry will draw a line under the Iraq War. Otherwise, the public's already weak confidence in the body politic risks being further eroded. As so rightly stated by William Hague:
“The need to learn the lessons of Iraq in terms of how government should function and countries should be rebuilt is transparently urgent. So too is the need to have studied, to the satisfaction of the British people, the actual origins of the war. For until that is done, any British government setting out to explain to parliament and people that military action is necessary to deal with a threat it believes to be serious will face a wall of scepticism and disbelief.”
Brown may feel that he has escaped lightly by not having to give evidence to the inquiry under after the general election. Perhaps that was one of the reasons for delaying the Inquiry for long? As Conservatives, we must continue to raise questions about the Inquiry process and never let up right up until polling day. There is time for the Government to commit to greater scrutiny. If nothing else, there is one certainty under this Government – its capacity for U-turn after U-turn.