Leo Docherty is the Director of the Conservative Middle East Council, a former soldier and author of Desert of Death: A Soldier’s Journey from Iraq to Afghanistan.
The release of the Chilcot Report has reminded us, first and foremost, of the trauma of the families of those killed in Iraq; the 179 British service men and women as well as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
It also marks the point at which Tony Blair’s reputation seems to have deteriorated beyond redemption.
Beyond the media storm of this week, what we should also remember is the massive geopolitical unbalancing that the 2003 invasion of Iraq wrought not just in Iraq, but in the neighbouring countries and beyond.
As someone who came to understand Iraq by serving there with the British Army the enduring lesson is that we must deal with the Middle East as it is, and not how we would like it to be.
As an Army Captain in Iraq, I remember visiting a police station in the city of Al Amarah to speak with the men we had been training and regulatory conducted patrols with. These men were our friends and allies.
But inside the police station, on display above the station commander’s desk, I caught sight of a large poster of Muqtada As Sadr, the Shi’a cleric and leader of a bloody insurgency against British troops.
The policemen who were on the surface our allies, were in reality – because of their sectarian loyalties – supportive of the man whose militia was trying to kill us.
Blair (like Bush) entirely misunderstood the sectarian nature of Iraq. Blair declared in 2003 ‘I will be with you, whatever’ and signed up unquestioningly to Bush’s neo-conservative doctrine that envisaged the flourishing of a democratic, pluralist Iraq, if only the people could be shot of the tyrant Saddam Hussein.
Infamously, Bush was ignorant – up until six weeks before the invasion – of the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims and the huge importance of the sectarian divisions in Iraq.
Understanding that Iraq is composed of three distinct and antagonistic population groups – Sunnis in the centre, Kurds in the north and Shi’a in the south – is fundamental to understanding the nature of that country, especially for those considering invading it.
For five hundred years the Sunni minority ruled Iraq, from the time of the Ottoman empire through a brief spell of monarchy to the brutality of the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein. For five hundred years Iraq’s border with Iran to the east had lain unchanged, marking the limit of Iranian influence in the Arab Gulf.
That fixed point of history was swept away in 2003 and in the worst irony of all, Iran was handed a stunning strategic victory – now able to wield powerful influence among the 70 per cent of the Iraqi population that are, like Iranians, Sh’ia Muslims.
Iran made full use of the opportunity: members of the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq swept into the new vacuum of Iraqi politics.
The Mahdi Army of the Iran-sponsored Shi’a cleric Muqtada As Sadr launched a full scale military insurgency, using Iranian supplied hi-tech armour piecing munitions to kill British and American soldiers.
Insurgency also exploded in the Sunni areas, fuelled by the sudden disbanding of the entire Iraqi army by the US Administrator Bremer. Sunni men whose status and livelihoods were diminished at a stroke, provided a large pool of angry, armed men ready to fight.
Adding to this sense of Sunni humiliation and anger was the root and branch de-Ba’athication which crippled the functioning of the Iraqi state by sacking vast numbers if civil servants (who had been Baath party members by necessity, not choice).
Into this chaos came Musab Al Zarqawi and Al Qaeda in Iraq, deepening sectarian tension by deliberating targeting the Shi’a civilian population in lethal mass casualty IED attacks and laying the foundations for the eventual rise of Islamic State.
Liberated in April 2003, Basra and the southern provinces of were by the summer of that year in revolt. Law and order had collapsed and in June the murder of six British Royal Military Police soldiers by a mob in Majar Al Kabir marked a brutal escalation of violence.
Importantly, this was in the part of the country – the Shi’a majority south – where the population – long suppressed by Saddam – were clear beneficiaries of his downfall.
But as I saw for myself, those we had liberated from Saddam’s tyranny saw us not as liberators but as infidel occupiers.
The neo-conservative dream of a pluralist, democratic Iraq died during the occupation. Sectarian forces, Sunni vs Shi’a vs Kurd, would always have exceeded the capacity or will of the American government and its allies to mold Iraq in its image, even at the cost of trillions of dollars and hundreds of lives.
The lesson of Chilcot and Iraq is not that we shouldn’t intervene, but that if we do we muct be clear about what we seek to achieve and how we are going to do it.
We must understand that local forces – sectarian, religious and political – will always be more enduring and potent that the good intentions of a foreign government.
If the chaos that continues to engulf Libya since the NATO led intervention of 2011 is anything to go by, we have yet to properly learn this lesson.