MPs attack Blair for 'vainglorious' approach to the conflict in Iraq

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MPs made angry demands for an inquiry into the Iraq war as they lambasted the Government over its handling of the invasion during the first full debate on the war in more than two years.

In a heated three-hour debate, Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, faced repeated calls for a full investigation to learn the lessons of the war and its aftermath.

Mrs Beckett insisted that it was not the time to hold a "backward looking" inquiry, saying it would send the wrong signal to insurgents in Iraq and the Iraqi people, and that it would undermine the armed forces.

Labour rebels joined Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs to back a debate called by Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalist Party demanding that seven senior MPs conduct an inquiry into the war. But some Labour backbenchers fought back, denouncing the "opportunistic" attacks and calls for an inquiry.

Opening the debate, the Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price said British troops were in a "quagmire" in Iraq and attacked the war as the "worst foreign policy disaster since Suez".

Mr Price said: "There are two Iraqs - the Iraq of George Bush and the Prime Minister where things are going to plan and getting better all the time, and the real Iraq of murder and mayhem, whose future is uncertain."

He said: "It's time now to tell the Prime Minister and all future prime ministers that they are not president and that the policy of this United Kingdom does not always have to be the policy of the United States."

Mr Price told MPs: "The inquiry we are calling for is not just essential to understanding what happened three-and-a-half years ago. It's imperative in understanding where we go from here."

William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, urged ministers to pledge an inquiry within the coming year.

He said: "We believe when operations have been going on for more than three years and are expected to diminish considerably in future months, and in a country where we are meant to enjoy the great democratic strength of being able to debate our successes and our failures, [that] to postpone the establishment of such an inquiry beyond another session of parliament would be beyond the limits of what is reasonable."

Mrs Beckett insisted, however, that Iraq was at a "turning point". She said: "At this critical juncture, when Iraq's future hangs so clearly in the balance, it would be wrong, plainly and simply wrong, to heed those who argue for us just to wash our hands of responsibility and walk away."

She acknowledged that it was "perfectly sensible and legitimate to say that there will come a time when these issues will be explored in the round and in full". But she added: "Is this the moment to take a decision and a step of the kind recommended in the motion? My answer is a resounding no."

Malcolm Rifkind, a former Conservative defence secretary, asked Mrs Beckett: "In the three years since this war has taken place, the Government has not initiated a single debate in this chamber. When the US Congress has as recently as June been permitted a full debate on these matters, isn't it appalling that when the Government has been responsible for such inherent misuse of its powers this chamber has not been allowed to debate this matter?"

Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran anti-war Labour MP, said an inquiry was necessary to prevent future conflict. He said: "It will open up the books, open up the record of what happened in 2003. If we want to live in a world of perpetual wars throughout this century we are going the right way about it... We should examine what we did and hopefully learn the lessons from it."

David Blunkett, the former home secretary, said that a minority of MPs had changed their minds about whether it was right to go to war in Iraq, but "there are those who have not changed their minds but cannot miss an opportunity to have a go at this Government and the Prime Minister whatever the consequences". He said that Conservatives who were supporting a motion from the Scottish nationalists with which they did not agree "can only be described as hypocrites".

Michael Moore, the Liberal Democrat shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "Three years ago British soldiers patrolled the streets of Basra in caps and berets and handed out sweets to the children. Now we learn that our staff have been evacuated from our consulate in Basra."

He added: "All of us on these benches and many others in the House opposed the original, dreadful decision to invade Iraq. We feared the worst but even in our pessimism we underestimated the horrors of the situation as we see them today. There needs to be accountability for the mistakes that were made and there needs to be lessons learned."

Denis MacShane, a former Foreign Office minister, appealed to Conservative MPs not to join what he called "the axis of opportunism" by supporting a motion from the Scottish nationalists, who had opposed the Iraq war and the Nato intervention in Kosovo. "That party has not found any despot around the world that it would not support so long as it is anti-American," he said.

Sir Peter Tapsell, a Tory MP who opposed the Iraq war, described it as "a strategic, political and humanitarian blunder of historic magnitude". He added: "Our Prime Minister is, figuratively speaking, more deeply steeped in blood than any Scottish politician since Macbeth. We need an inquiry to tell us how he led us into this disaster and to make sure that no vainglorious and ignorant prime minister can ever do so again."

Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader, making his first Commons speech since his forced resignation in January, said that there was a "suspicion" that the Government never had any plan other than to join the Americans in invading Iraq.

But he was also scathing about the "convoluted consensus" now being sought by the Conservatives, and reminded MPs of how vehemently they supported the war at the time. "The Conservatives have not exactly played their part in asking questions, which is why inquiries remain outstanding," he said.

He added: "The goalposts kept moving through this whole tragic episode. It was a moral case at one point; at another point it was a strategic defence of our interests because Iraq had a 45-minute threat of potential obliteration and all the rest of it. Yet in the final debate what did he [Blair] say? - 'even at this late stage, Saddam and his sons can save their regime if they comply with United Nations resolutions'. So much for the moral argument. The truth will out one day. We will never know how many people lost their lives, but on the political tombstone of this Prime Minister will be the word, Iraq."

The Labour rebels

The 12 Labour MPs who called for an inquiry into the Iraq war:

Harry Cohen, Leyton and Wanstead

Jeremy Corbyn, Islington N

Mark Fisher, Stoke-on-Trent Central

Glenda Jackson, Hampstead and Highgate

Roger Godsiff, Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath

John McDonnell, Hayes and Harlington

Alan Simpson, Nottingham S

Sir Peter Soulsby, Leicester S

Robert Marshall-Andrews, Medway

Gavin Strang, Edinburgh East

Robert Wareing, Liverpool West Derby

Mike Wood, Batley