Johann Hari: Listen to the elected Iraqi government, not the verdict of the Attorney General

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The Independent Online

There are days I feel like I have been a cheerleader for mass murder. More than 150,000 Iraqis have died in the war I supported. (I am including the Iraqi soldiers; they were conscripted, terrified young men, and they should not be left out of the death counts). Malnutrition among Iraqi children is up. The country is littered with carcinogenic depleted uranium shells. Human Rights Watch says human rights abuses are happening right now in Iraq, and Fallujah is a bloody pile of rubble.

I keep thinking about the people I met in Iraq before the war, and wondering if they made it through. And the question keeps recurring: is Iraq - and the wider Middle East - sufficiently better to justify all that death?

And then a coincidence of timing happens, and the arguments become clear again. Yesterday, British politics was gripped by the release of the Attorney General's legal advice. But something else was happening too: Iraq's first democratic government was formed, and the President was trying to speak to us.

Jalal Talabani is a Kurdish human rights lawyer - something of an advance on Saddam Hussein. President Talabani said, "In the eyes of a majority of Iraqis, it was you who brought us our own equivalent of VE Day. Of course, the liberation of Iraq was controversial, as all wars should be. But Saddam's war against the Iraqi people was ongoing; we have evidence which demonstrates that the regime was executing its challengers until the last day of its rule. It was that war, lasting almost 40 years, which was the true war of Iraq. It was never controversial, never discussed, simply ordered and executed by him and his thugs. Our struggle for a better, emancipated Iraq now is only possible because of the coalition of the willing."

What should matter more to us when we judge the legality and morality of this war - the advice of the Attorney General and People Like Us, or the advice of the Iraqi people and their elected representatives? For me, this has always been the central question in the rows about Iraq. Back in 2003, when it became clear there might be a war in Iraq, I thought the principle that should determine my position was pretty simple: what do the Iraqi people want? I did everything I could to find out - from visiting Iraq to traipsing around London's centres for Iraqi refugees. But it was strange to discover that most people didn't want to hear about the opinion of Iraqis. The pro-war people justified their actions on the basis of WMD; the anti-war people just assumed they had the Iraqis onside.

At every step of the way, British people acted as though the argument about Iraq was a proxy for something else: a row about American power, or about pre-emptive war, or about Tony Blair's proximity to Bush. Too many of us chose our positions on that basis, not on the basis of solidarity with Iraqis.

There was a small, perfect moment a few months ago that symbolised this refusal to listen. Tony Blair was being interviewed by June Sarpong before a hostile studio audience, and the Prime Minister was talking flatly about Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction. The studio was filled - rightly - with jeering. They knew there were no WMD, and they demanded to know: wasn't this war about oil, or Israel, or a raw assertion of US power post-9/11?

The row continued for five fruitless minutes, with Blair begging the audience not to question his integrity, and the audience in turn begging to know the real reasons why he went to war.

And then a small, level voice came from the front row. "I am an Iraqi," a young woman said, "and I have just come back from my country. I know this war was not about Weapons of Mass Destruction, and I know the Americans did not do this because they care about us. But all of my family in Iraq supported this war, and so did I. We did it because we knew there was no other way to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Why can't you all understand that? Why can't you side with us?"

There was a long pause. The audience looked nonplussed. Nobody spoke. And then the row about WMD burst out again, furious and fiery. Everybody carried on as if the Iraqi had not spoken. Blair tried to gesture at one point towards the Iraqi woman when his WMD argument was manifestly flagging, but nobody wanted to hear.

The debate about the legality of the war is a restaging of that studio debate on a national scale. The Iraqis are trying to speak, but because what they have to say fits into neither Blair's "Get the WMD!" script nor the Stop the War argument, nobody is listening.

Here is what Iraqis have persistently said about the war, in all the opinion polls and now through their elected representatives: They wanted the invasion to proceed. (Asked the simple question "Do you think America and Britain's war against Saddam's regime was right or wrong?", 50 per cent said to YouGov it was right and only 27 per cent said it was wrong.) But like all sane people, Iraqis did not think the American and British governments had altruistic motives for invading. They thought the WMD rationale was an absurd lie, with only 6 per cent of Iraqis describing it as the motive for invasion. Some 46 per cent thought (probably correctly) it was to get access to Iraq's oil and 41 per cent thought it was to help Israel - but they still supported it, because Saddam was the alternative.

Once Saddam was gone, they wanted elections as soon as possible and for the occupation to end. They have stuck to this position absolutely consistently.

But when it comes to legality, you have to answer a basic question: who is sovereign in Iraq? If you believe the Iraqi people are sovereign, then there was no crime, because Iraqis and now their elected government say they wanted the invasion to proceed. You can't invade the willing. The problem is that currently international law does not recognise peoples as sovereign. Incredible though it seems, right up until the moment he was forced from power, international law regarded Saddam Hussein's government as sovereign.

That cannot be right, and that cannot be a law worth defending. I support the idea of international law; but protecting the sovereignty of tyrants - against the will of their people - is a perversion of the benevolent instincts that lead people to seek lawfare not warfare.

Yet still the idea gnaws at me: is the will of the Iraqi people too thin a thread on which to hang the justification for a £200bn invasion and occupation? I remain certain of one thing though: the answers to these questions will only ever come from the Iraqi people and men like Jalal Talabani, and never from a remote British lawyer.