Leading article: The damaging legacy of an ill-advised invasion


The political consensus over how Britain should respond to the terrorist atrocity on London continues to hold. Yesterday the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, and his Conservative and Liberal Democrat counterparts met to discuss a programme of anti-terror legislation on which all three main parties can agree. It was a productive meeting. They emerged to announce that there are "no main outstanding issues of difference" between them. This means we are likely to see new laws governing terrorism offences introduced to Parliament, with cross-party support, in October.

It is commendable that our political representatives are working together to ensure public safety from the threat of terrorism. Less commendably, the Government is working hard at the moment to forge political unity on a quite separate question: Iraq. And this too has profound implications for public safety. A report by the Royal Institute of International Affairs think-tank, better known as Chatham House, has concluded that the US-led invasion of Iraq put Britain at much greater risk of terrorist attack.

Government ministers are, naturally, hypersensitive to this charge. And they have prepared a superficially convincing argument as to why it is erroneous to make any link between the London bombing and Iraq. They claim that Britain and the entire Western world was under threat from terrorism long before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. And this is, of course, true. Attacks on Westerners by - or inspired by - al-Qa'ida occurred in Kenya, Tanzania, New York and Bali, before the tanks started to advance on Baghdad. Britain would certainly have been a target for fanatical Islamic terrorists even if we had refused to co-operate with the invasion of Iraq. Our support for the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan, which deposed the Taliban regime, would have been enough to guarantee that.

But this is something quite separate from arguing that the invasion of Iraq has made us safer. The effect of the US-led operation has been to stoke terrorism around the world. By going to war on a false prospectus - namely that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction - we have been seen as engaging in deception by the Islamic world. By disregarding the objections of other members of the United Nations Security Council, we have looked like unilateral aggressors. The abuses of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison and Camp Breadbasket have presented us as cruel torturers. What greater propaganda gift could we have granted to Osama bin Laden, who has consistently presented the West as an oppressor of all Muslims?

In the aftermath of the invasion, Iraq has degenerated into bloody chaos, thanks to inadequate planning by the US military. Iraqi civilians are dying daily from suicide bombings. President Bush's invasion has transformed the country into a huge terrorist training ground, drawing in jihadists from all over the Middle East.

This newspaper's opposition to the Iraq war was never based on narrow self-interest. The increased risk of a terror attack on UK soil was one of a number of objections. Just as important was the argument that Iraq was a diversion from the true target - al-Qa'ida. By concentrating our military resources on Iraq, we neglected to secure Afghanistan. The result is that the Taliban is now resurgent there and Bin Laden remains at large.

Britain is the latest nation to grieve in the wake of a terrorist outrage. The Government is justified in pointing out that we are not the first to do so nor will we be the last. But to claim that the misbegotten invasion of Iraq has not made Britain - and indeed the world - much less safe from terrorism is an insult to the intelligence.

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