Speed of military success took Iraq planners 'by surprise'

British occupying forces were unprepared for the problems they faced running Iraq after invading in 2003, the official inquiry into the war heard today.

The speed of the military operation took planners by surprise, according to a senior Army officer, and reconstruction efforts were hampered by a growing insurgency; security issues; economic, governance and power supply problems.

Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Viggers, who was the senior British military representative in Iraq from May to September 2003, said: "It was rather like going to the theatre and seeing one sort of play and realising you were watching a tragedy as the curtains came back.

"We suffered from a lack of any real understanding of the state of that country post-invasion."

Not enough research had been carried out, he said, and the reality was a "long way" from the expectation that it would be a humanitarian crisis with a population willing to help.

Gen Viggers told the inquiry it took 16 days for troops to enter Baghdad from the start line, compared with the estimated 100 days.

"That was a stunning military operation but in so doing it took everyone by surprise," he said.

After being met initially with a "hugely celebratory population", the tide quickly turned against the occupying forces, the inquiry heard.

"We were not laying on everything that we were expected to do," Gen Viggers said. "They are saying to us 'you people put a man on the moon and now you are telling us we can't have electricity'."

Lieutenant General Andrew Figgures, who took over the role from Gen Viggers in September 2003, said by the time he arrived the assessment was coalition forces were involved in stabilisation and a "mopping-up" activity to enable the Iraqi economy and government to get into place.

But as incidents were analysed, he told the inquiry, he realised it was not a "stabilisation operation", particularly in the Sunni triangle and the Baghdad area.

He said: "We came to the conclusion we were in the grip of a growing insurgency."

According to Gen Figgures, the chain of command was briefed on the situation and while not "overwhelmed" by the assessment because it was not "what was meant to happen", staff were instructed to set about trying to deal with it.

He said a timetable was required to set out when sovereignty would be transferred to the Iraqis, who felt "let down".

"There were many causes for discontent and this fed the insurgency," he said. "There had to be a date in the diary at which sovereignty could be transferred back to the Iraqis and everybody had to be seen as working towards it."

There was a "kaleidoscope" of problems, the inquiry heard, including security, power supplies, the fact there was no judicial system in place, issues with Iraqi police forces and the Army, which was left short of commanders following the removal of any members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party.

Disclosures in April 2004 about torture of prisoners at the hands of US soldiers at Abu Ghraib and the bombing of UN HQ in Baghdad in August 2003 were also major setbacks in attempts to win over the Iraqi people, the inquiry heard.

Gen Viggers told the inquiry the "lack of a sense of direction from the outset" put officials on a "back foot" and called for more training of civilian officials including Government ministers to ensure similar problems did not occur in the future.

The lessons learned could apply to Afghanistan, he told the inquiry.

"We have not really progressed at the strategic level," he said. "I am not talking about the soldiers and commanders and civilians...who did a great job.

"But it's the intellectual horse power that drives these things (which) needs better co-ordination."

Of the need for training - even for ministers - he said: "We are putting amateurs into really important positions and people are getting killed as a result of some of these decisions.

"It's a huge responsibility and I just don't sense we are living up to it."