Patrick Cockburn: The real scandal is Blair's ignorance

Worth watching will be the extent to which he continues his tirades against Iran, in much the same way as he spoke of Iraq

Friday 21 January 2011 01:00

Few Iraqis will be paying much attention to Tony Blair's appearance before the Chilcot inquiry today. They are too busy trying to stay alive eight years after the beginning of the war he helped to launch. In the last few days at least 127 Iraqis have been killed by suicide bombers, 52 of them yesterday in the holy city of Karbala when three cars blew up among pilgrims.

Viewed from the streets of Baghdad, the circumstances of the invasion seem very much like ancient history. A few, notably Kurds, still have good things to say about President Bush and Mr Blair. But even Iraqis who supported the invasion suspect the motives of those who carried it out, cynically convinced that the real aim of the invaders was to get their hands on Iraqi oil or to establish permanent military bases.

The last time he gave evidence Mr Blair was perkily full of information about how life had improved in Iraq since Saddam Hussein. But in truth the war that he started has yet to finish, even if there is no longer the full-scale slaughter of 2006-7 when 3,000 mangled bodies were turning up every month. The two million refugees who fled the country have not yet dared to return. The wounds inflicted on Iraqis since the invasion of 2003, coming on top of the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war and sanctions, will take decades to heal.

The main impression I got from both Mr Blair's evidence to the inquiry last year and his autobiography was his extraordinary ignorance of Iraq. His critics unintentionally give him an easy ride by focusing on the exact circumstances in which he led Britain into the war: the false claims about WMD, the "dodgy dossier", the nature of the advice he received from the Attorney General, and the degree to which Saddam Hussein posed a threat.

But even more damning and more destructive than what he did before the war was Mr Blair's failure to learn much about the country after the invasion. Going by his evidence, he seems to think, as well as speak, in slogans. In his evidence he lost no opportunity to blame the Iranian hidden hand for destabilising Iraq and backing al-Qa'ida.

This may go down well when Mr Blair talks to paranoid Sunni rulers in the Gulf or audiences of neo-cons in the US, but very little of it is true. Iran was never likely to give much support to al-Qa'ida, which was more intent on slaughtering Shia in Iraq than killing Americans.

The former British ambassador to Iran, Sir Richard Dalton, told the inquiry in little noticed but fascinating testimony that Mr Blair's claims were all "very much exaggerated". He warned that Mr Blair was seeking "to cast a retrospectively benign light on a series of very bad decisions" and, by justifying what was done in Iraq in the past, to open the door to an attack on Iran in future.

Worth watching today will be the extent to which Mr Blair continues his tirades against Iran, misrepresenting the country and its leaders as an imminent threat in much the same way as he spoke of Iraq in the lead-up to the invasion. Sir Richard told the inquiry that he felt that "a military adventure against Iran" would be as illegal and unjustified as the one launched against Iraq.

Mr Blair's enthusiasm for a confrontation with Iran stems partly from the fact that he never seems to have understood what went wrong for him in Iraq. It was not so much the war against Saddam Hussein that doomed the venture as the occupation which followed. He and President George Bush might have got away with overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his regime if they had swiftly withdrawn and handed over real power to an interim Iraqi government.

They did the exact opposite. Instead of withdrawing, the Americans and British occupied the whole country and showed every sign of wanting to remain in control. The occupation was, as Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister and one of the more pro-Western of Iraqi leaders, said, "the mother of all mistakes".

The problem for the US and Britain was quite simple, and they had faced it before. In the wake of the Iraqi army's defeat in Kuwait in 1991, the US could have supported Shia and Kurdish uprisings with air power and Saddam Hussein would probably have been forced from power. The Americans did not do so because they did not want the Iraqi Shia, supposedly linked to Iran, becoming the dominant force in Iraq.

Twelve years later, George W Bush and Tony Blair somehow failed to foresee that getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated regime meant that the Shia and Kurds would take over. The Shia are 60 per cent of the Iraqi population and their parties were bound to win any election.

There was only one way for the US and Britain to square the circle whereby they could overthrow Saddam Hussein but not let the Iraqi Shia and their Iranian allies replace him. This was to take power themselves in Baghdad and keep real political and military authority in their own hands.

It is curious that Britain remains so obsessed with the months preceding the war and not with what happened later. Perhaps this is because the events of 2002 and early 2003 illustrate in graphic terms the extent to which British foreign policy has come under US suzerainty over the last half-century.

It is important to realise when watching Blair before Chilcot that the mistakes he made as Prime Minister led to real people dying. Most were Iraqi, some were British. Yet it ought to have been easy to see what was going wrong from the early days of the occupation. Iraqis who were glad to see the end of Saddam Hussein were not going to allow a quasi-colonial regime to replace him.

An early and grim example of Iraqi attitudes was the killing of six British military policemen in Majar al-Kabir in southern Iraq in June 2003. No part of Iraq had resisted Saddam's regime more fiercely. The local provincial capital, Amara, was the only one to be captured by anti-government guerrillas (to be promptly ordered out by the CIA, which threatened to have them bombed). Yet it was in Majar al-Kabir that British troops were sent to remove people's heavy weapons, search houses and send foot patrols through the streets. Local leaders were bemused. They asked me: "If Saddam Hussein could not take away our weapons, why should we allow the British to do so?" The only reason they could think why they were being disarmed was that America and Britain intended to occupy Iraq for a long time.

I went to the partly burnt out police station where the six military policemen, with no chance of escape, had been riddled with bullets. Witnesses said they had been lynched by a furious crowd after local men had been shot by a British patrol.

As Mr Blair justifies his actions today, it is worth remembering those six soldiers. They and many others paid for his mistakes with their lives.

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