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Chilcot: The public craves a full account that holds people responsible. Then healing can begin

Those affected by the Iraq war want a reckoning

Andreas Whittam Smith
Wednesday 21 January 2015 18:30 GMT
John Chilcot announcing the terms of reference of his inquiry into the causes of the Iraq war in 2009
John Chilcot announcing the terms of reference of his inquiry into the causes of the Iraq war in 2009 (Getty)

The British public can neither forget nor forgive the calamity that was the Iraq war. It cost the lives of 179 British troops. And reviewing the conflict afterwards, the authoritative Royal United Services Institute judged that “far from reducing international terrorism... the 2003 invasion [of Iraq] had the effect of promoting it”.

The inquiry that has been commissioned to produce the final and authoritative account of what went wrong, led by Sir John Chilcot, was set up in 2009. The news this week, that it cannot be published before the general election in May, will be grimly borne. To paraphrase what many will be thinking: “These clowns cannot even get a report out in time for a general election whose date has been known since 2010”.

The true costs of the Iraq war spread very wide. Led by Tony Blair, the British Government of the time was wholly complicit in what happened. A total of 4,491 US service members were killed between 2003 and 2014 and, as well as the British deaths, the other Coalition nations lost a further 139 military personnel.

There have been various estimates of civilian deaths. The Lancet, one of the world’s most respected medical journals, calculated that 600,000 civilians had lost their lives as a result of the conflict. Likewise the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that 1.8 million Iraqis had been displaced to neighbouring countries, and that 1.6 million had been displaced internally. In other words, 3.4 million people were chased out of their homes.

And then finally there was the torture and abuse of Coalition prisoners of war on a large scale. How could our Government have got us into this? That is the true Chilcot subject matter.

It isn’t as if ordinary people didn’t sense what was coming. Between one million and two million citizens came out to protest in February 2003 just before the war started. They marched through London. They were not all fringe parties or anything like it. There were Conservatives like Ken Clarke. There were Labour people, including Robin Cook, who also had their reservations. After it was over, Andy Todd, assistant deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said the crowd had been tolerant and patient and “the biggest I have experienced.”

But would of any of those who were marching on that day have foreseen that, within a year, photographs would be published from the Abu Ghraib prisoner of war camp showing naked prisoners piled on top of each other, and others hooded and wired with electrodes? Many of the posters carried in the march proclaimed “Not In Our Name”. How prescient that was.

What has delayed the Chilcot inquiry was well analysed by Lord Elystan-Morgan, a former Welsh politician, in a House of Lords debate last year. He said the inquiry had run into what he called a “massive roadblock”. This concerned three groups of documents: 25 notes passed between Tony Blair and the President of the United States; 200 Cabinet or Cabinet-style discussions relating to the relevant matters; and 130 conversations between either Mr Blair or Gordon Brown and the President of the United States.

The problem hasn’t been whether the Chilcot inquiry should see these documents. They have done so. Rather the question has been concerned with the purposes for which the inquiry wished to use the documents. It wanted to be able to say, “We have examined all the evidence. We have come to the conclusion that there is a prima facie case against A, B, C and D - the finger of blame appears to point to them as persons who ought to be criticised. But we are not going to do that without giving them the opportunity of replying to that situation and calling evidence if they wish.”

In turn this has meant showing potentially guilty parties the evidence upon which criticism of them is based. But that is not all. The inquiry wants to be able to show to the public that, if it has maintained that certain persons are blameworthy, then they should be condemned not out of the generality of the inquiry’s conclusions but out of the specific evidence that is contained in those same notes, Cabinet papers and transatlantic conversations.

Meanwhile the discussions with those who have been criticised drags on. Sir John told David Cameron this week that this was an essential and confidential process and that the inquiry intended to finish its work “as soon as it is possible to do so whilst being fair to all those involved”. But no doubt the people in the dock have been deliberately going as slowly as they can. They dream, hopelessly, of kicking all this into the proverbial long grass.

Now you can suppose that when it finally arrives, the Chilcot inquiry is unlikely to tell us much we don’t know already. As long ago as 2004, the former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler, led an inquiry into the intelligence used to justify the war against Iraq. Its main conclusion was that some of it was unreliable. Overall it said that “more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear”, and the Cabinet’s judgements had stretched available intelligence “to the outer limits”.

Then in 2013, retired judge Sir Peter Gibson reviewed 20,000 top secret documents after allegations of wrongdoing by MI5 and MI6 officers in the wake of 9/11. He found no evidence officers were directly involved in the torture or rendition of suspects. But he said further investigation was needed into evidence of complicity. Sir Peter told reporters: “It does appear that the United Kingdom may have been inappropriately involved in some renditions. That is a very serious matter. And no doubt any future inquiry would want to look at that.”

Then there is the website of the Chilcot inquiry itself, which has published a huge number of documents that were once secret and have now been declassified. If you were read through them at one go, together with the transcripts of interviews with key witnesses, then you could probably write a report yourself that would prove to be close to what Sir John himself finally concludes.

But that is not the point. What the public craves is a full account, an official one, that lets nobody escape from his or her responsibilities. The mistakes were too large, the consequences too dreadful for anything less to be appropriate. The families and friends of the Iraq war casualties want a reckoning. Their wounds are still open. Healing cannot begin until Sir John reports. That is the urgency.

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