The UK needs an inquiry into the Iraq inquiry

The illusion, and that is what it was, of American omnipotence, evaporated from the very first salvoes of Operation Shock and Awe

Chris Doyle

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It has been nearly a dozen years since the 2003 war that so devastated an already battered Iraq, upended the Middle East order and shattered any vestigial confidence in the Anglo-American alliance’s ability to shape the region. The illusion, and that is what it was, of American omnipotence, evaporated from the very first salvoes of Operation Shock and Awe. The entire Obama administration has been haunted by George Bush’s ill-conceived adventure, its legacy seeming to tie the president’s hands regardless of the case for intervention. Its impact is felt nearly every day in Iraq, as well as in Syria and sparked Iran’s rise from regional isolation hemmed in in every direction to a power with major influence in nearly every theatre of crisis. But without doubt the bloodiest and most horrendous impact has been borne by Iraqis with hundreds of thousands killed and injured and a whole society fragmented into narrow sectarian, ethnic and tribal identities.

Any delays or hint that the inquiry would not publish all evidence in full has always triggered immediate accusations of an establishment cover-up

Chris Doyle

Both in the United States and Britain the 2003 war remains a divisive polarizing issue. The fingers of every part of the establishments in Washington and London were given fourth-degree burns – the politicians, the military, the diplomats, the intelligence services and even the media. Those who opposed the war remain angry that nobody has been held accountable.

Iraq’s radioactive status

Anyone in any doubt about Iraq’s radioactive status needs a fleeting survey of the media reactions to a further delay in the publication of the report of official British inquiry into the Iraq War, otherwise known as the Chilcot inquiry after its chair, Sir John Chilcot. The standard consensus until recently was that the report would be published well before the May 7 elections of this year but on 20 January Sir John wrote to the prime minister informing him that this would not happen. The prime minister expressed his disappointment whilst the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, whose party had opposed the war, described it as “incomprehensible.” Backbench members of parliament have procured a debate on January 29 to debate the delay. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee will question Sir John Chilcot on February 4.

Any delays or hint that the inquiry would not publish all evidence in full has always triggered immediate accusations of an establishment cover-up. Nearly 1500 days ago, back in June 2009 when the previous Prime Minister Gordon Brown belatedly established the inquiry he had wanted it to have its sessions “in camera” prompting the then leader of the opposition David Cameron to describe it as “an establishment stitch-up”(would he do so now as prime minister?). The head of the civil service has admitted that originally it was expected that the report would be finished within a year.

Releasing the minutes

Amazingly the last public evidence session was held as long ago as February 2011. For three years, Chilcot has battled with Whitehall mandarins to gain full disclosure especially of the essential minutes of meetings and notes of conversations between President Bush and then British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It has been agreed that the inquiry will provide only the essential gist of the minutes. The latest announcement is that 29 of those notes will be published, “subject to a very small number of essential redactions.” Blair and his office keep on denying that he has anything to do with the delays hinting therefore that it is others who are. The key focus is just exactly when and in what circumstances did Blair commit to join Bush in attacking Iraq. Officially no decision was made to go to war until the vote in Parliament in 2003, but those who genuinely believe that may need a cranial examination.

Inevitably the focus will be on Blair. In Britain, the Iraq war was his war, his adventure, his legacy. The public remain divided and indeed whatever the inquiry reports, the pro and ante groupings will likely remains they are today – poles apart. Many will only be satisfied when Blair is put on trial where, unlike in front of this inquiry, he will have to give evidence under oath.

Yet Blair aside, the inquiry should still matter. Sadly, and not least given the presence of two historians out of the five inquiry members, it may just be a large historical tome, claiming to be the definitive account of how Britain went to war. Thus far the inquiry has not offered much new in the public domain. It will not hold anyone accountable even if it does apportion some blame and criticism.

Chilcot inquiry

But the Chilcot inquiry still matters – not least assuaging public concern and outlining lessons to be learnt. Reporting so late has already made a mockery of these two ambitions. Since 2003, Britain has been to war in Libya and now against ISIS, and was only 13 votes short of committing to strikes on Syria. The public has lost much confidence in the inquiry’s process. In the short term the establishment may breathe easier. But should a scenario arise akin to 2003 again, could the same disastrous errors be made again?

The British public still largely feels deceived and cheated over Iraq, with a common reference to misleading intelligence and dodgy dossiers. Iraqis too may feel bitterly let down. In an era of anti-politics and a chasm between the government and the governed this inquiry has only served to increase that gap. Any vital inquiry should never take over a decade to produce. It should have been set up immediately, on a transparent basis and with due powers to hold parties to account for their actions. It is amazing that the ‘establishment’ still gets away with this time-honored series of tricks and delaying tactics to avoid taking any blame. On top of the scandal of Iraq there is now the scandal of the inquiry that reports too little, too late. Perhaps there should be an inquiry into that?


Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

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