How The Independent made the case against the Iraq War – 14 years before Sir John Chilcot

In the run-up to the invasion, The Independent and Independent on Sunday led the public case against the government. Here, we reproduce a selection of editorials from late 2002, when controversy over the war reached boiling point

Wednesday 06 July 2016 13:11 BST
One of the many protests against the Iraq War, to which 'The Independent' gave a robust intellectual grounding
One of the many protests against the Iraq War, to which 'The Independent' gave a robust intellectual grounding (Getty Images)

The Independent – 25.9.2002

"Saddam may be a risk to peace, but Mr Blair has failed to make the case for war against Iraq"

It is, as the Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said in the House of Commons yesterday, all a matter of “means, mentality and motive” when it comes to Saddam Hussein.

The publication of the long-awaited dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is a detailed account of Saddam's past and current capacity in this field. True, much of the material is already in the public domain, and we are asked to take much on the word of the intelligence community. Their assessments have not always proved reliable in the past, lamentably so in the case of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qa'ida network. But there is no reason to doubt the consensus view, confirmed by this dossier, that Saddam probably does possess some of the means to produce chemical, biological and, possibly, nuclear weapons.

So, in Mr Duncan Smith's formulation, Saddam does have the means to produce some of these weapons; but we knew that. What must be doubted is whether he currently has the mentality and motive to use them against the West or, indeed, against the West's allies and friends in the region. Without evidence to suggest that he does, the case for unilateral military action against Iraq collapses. And it is on these points that both the dossier and Tony Blair's statements in the House of Commons were weakest.

There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein is a monstrous, murdering dictator. His history of cruel internal repression and merciless external aggression has cost more than a million lives, and it is meticulously detailed in the dossier. He has invaded his neighbours, deployed nerve gas and tortured opponents. The individual testimonies of victims of Saddam's regime in the dossier are powerful and moving.

As Mr Blair often says, the people of Iraq, of the Middle East and, indeed, of the whole world would be much better off without him. Again, we knew that, and, of course, it's true. The world would be better off without all its loathsome despots, from Kim Jong Il to Robert Mugabe. However, few talk about invading North Korea or Zimbabwe, even though Mr Kim may have nuclear weapons and both represent, in their very different ways, potent threats to the stability of their regions. Nor do we hear very much from President Bush or Mr Blair about “liberating” the billion oppressed citizens of China and occupied Tibet.

The usual official response to this argument is that Saddam represents a uniquely terrible threat to Western interests and the security and peace of the Middle East. Yet there is no concrete evidence for this in the dossier, or anywhere else. Despite his taste for attacking his enemies, Saddam has been effectively contained since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. A mixture of diplomatic pressure, sanctions, no-fly zones and Western forces in neighbouring countries has seen to that. As to weapons of mass destruction, Saddam knows that if he were ever to use them, then the response of the West, whose nuclear arsenals far outstrip anything Saddam could dream of, would be unleashed on him.

Saddam's mentality may be deeply unpleasant, and his motivation aggressive, but unless we take the view that he is completely irrational or just plain mad, there is no reason why he should not continue to be “kept in his box” by a policy of deterrence.

None of which argues against upholding the will of the United Nations. The UN's weapons inspectors should return to Iraq and go about their business without obstruction. Saddam has now offered to allow them in without condition, and although we should be sceptical about his sincerity, this offer must be taken up. If nothing else, it might provide a fresher assessment of Iraqi capabilities than the one in the dossier. For the most worrying aspect of the Government's approach is that the UN does not always seem to be central to it. Mr Blair yesterday signally failed to rule out unilateral action by the US backed by Britain to achieve regime change, and that omission is very worrying.

Let us be clear: Saddam does represent a risk to peace, but he is not such a substantial danger as to justify unilateral military intervention. If we were to march into Baghdad, say, what then? Where is his replacement to be found? Are we to have a repeat of the situation in Afghanistan, where the US just bombs the old regime out of existence and then ships out? What effect would such a vacuum have on the stability of the region, particularly Saudi Arabia? What would a $60 barrel of oil do to the world economy? A pre-emptive strike by the West may even place Saddam in a position where he feels he has nothing to lose, and it may actually provoke him to attack Israel. In other words, awful as Saddam is, a war to remove him could easily make matters far worse.

The real threat to Western security, as 11 September demonstrated, comes from individual acts of terror. A war on Iraq would create hundreds of thousands more volunteers for al-Qa'ida and similar groups. If we really want to make the world a safer place, we have to make the Middle East a safer place. That means a lasting peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. War on Iraq would only render that prospect still more distant.


The Independent – 9.10.2002

"Mr Straw's impossible task: to preach war where nobody wants it"

The whistle-stop tour of the Middle East by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, is proving a great deal of whistle and not much stop. A flying visit to four countries in a couple of days, starting in Cairo yesterday, is clearly not designed as an opportunity to listen to the concern of the region at America's determination to attack Iraq, still less to discuss the contentious points of bringing peace to Palestine.

Which is precisely the problem. In declaring that Britain is prepared to support America whatever it does, Britain is no longer going to the Middle East as a friendly interlocutor but as a messenger from Washington. The message it brings is extremely troubling to Mr Straw's hosts in Cairo, Amman, Kuwait and Tehran, and it is also confused.

Is America determined to “get Saddam” whatever; or is it now prepared to see the international community handle the affair through the United Nations? If it is bent on war, then the Middle East regimes have reason to tremble, for few, especially in Egypt and Jordan, could expect to survive the consequent upheaval. Yet few outsiders to Washington's inner core, least of all Mr Straw, really knows what is behind Mr Bush's latest hard- line speech against Iraq. Is it just rhetoric to deflect attention from the economy before the November elections? Or is it the expression of a certain plan to unseat the Baghdad regime? By tying itself to Uncle Sam's coat-tails, Britain has made itself the streamer of American domestic politics, whose course it can hope to influence only on the margins, yet whose consequences it cannot avoid.

To be fair to Mr Straw, he also goes to the Middle East with a message from Mr Blair that is rather less acceptable to Washington or Israel: that any solution to Middle Eastern security is inseparable from an agreement over Palestine. Arab feeling about an overthrow of Saddam Hussein may be ambiguous, but on this it is united. Tony Blair put it well in Blackpool: if we are to demand of Saddam Hussein that he obey UN resolutions, then we must demand the same from Israel.

The trouble with this understanding, however, is that Britain really has little influence over the players involved. The latest incursions by the Israeli armed forces into the Gaza Strip, with the loss of around a dozen civilian lives, is part of a pattern of violence on both sides which would seem to make peace impossible for the time being.

Washington condemns the unnecessary loss of civilian life in the latest assault. The Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, declares in reply that he thinks that “the operation was a success.” Against a consistent pattern of assassination and incursion every time a ceasefire seems about to hold, it is now hard to avoid the conclusion that the Israeli Prime Minister is unwilling to contemplate peace unless it is on his own terms.

Tony Blair talks of a peace agreement on the basis of withdrawing to the 1967 boundaries. Mr Sharon, the architect of settlements in the occupied territories, has consistently refused to admit the closure of even one settlement. Indeed he continues to expand them. London cannot influence him and Washington has no will to do so.

Britain's impotence is not the fault of Mr Straw. He has been set an impossible task: to preach a war to which the Middle East is entirely opposed, and which even the majority of the British public are firmly against. It is understandable but hardly useful that he wants to give his message and get out of the region as quickly as possible.


The Independent – 12.10.2002

"The US blueprint for post-war Iraq strengthens the case against invasion"

As an intellectual exercise, the American plan for occupying Iraq and imposing a military government after a war against Saddam Hussein is useful. It helps to make the case against war by outlining in detail the moral and logistical obstacles to the enterprise.

As a blueprint for action, however, it speaks volumes for an American self-confidence that might in other circumstances be admirable but in today's world is frightening. The blithe assumption that running Iraq would be comparable to the necessary and unavoidable task of rebuilding the shattered societies of West Germany and Japan after the Second World War is extraordinary.

It is alarming, too, that US officials should have concluded, in the light of the difficulties in Afghanistan since the the Taliban were overthrown, that the right approach in Iraq would be for Americans to take over the ruling of the entire country. Especially when the story in Afghanistan is still one of relative success. Hamid Karzai was chosen as leader by a broad-based conference of representatives in Bonn and, despite the inevitable slide towards warlordism in parts of the country, he is still there.

But the American plan is little more than a recognition of what anyone who cared to look has always known, that the internal opposition to President Saddam is weak, divided and unable to prove that it represents anyone. That does not, however, justify an occupation led by the US.

Even Henry Kissinger, a man who has some experience of trying to impose the will of the US on an economically puny but virulently anti-American nation, declared last month: “I am viscerally opposed to a prolonged occupation of a Muslim country at the heart of the Muslim world by Western nations who proclaim the right to re-educate that country.”

That is the problem. Even if President Saddam were a provable and imminent danger to his neighbours - which he is not - the threshold for war ought to be set high. And the effects of a US occupation of an increasingly Islamicised country on Arab and Muslim sensibilities throughout the Middle East should raise the bar higher still.

Tony Blair knew, as he strolled through the woods with Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, that no United Nations resolution is going to authorise the turning of Iraq into a US protectorate. He knows, too, that only an explicit UN resolution can authorise the use of military force against Iraq.

Such a mandate is unlikely to emerge from polite diplomatic talks - “one resolution or two?” - in Moscow. That might not matter if the US had a stronger moral case and world opinion were united behind the need for early and overwhelming use of force. But support for what would literally be overkill is - as Mr Blair is finding - severely limited outside the governments of America, Britain and Israel.

Mr Blair, the consummate salesman, is having real difficulty persuading international opinion to back President George Bush's. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, found he was selling damaged goods on his tour of Arab countries; Mr Blair has not even managed to persuade the British people, let alone the Russian President.

Getting UN inspectors into Iraq is a modest and reasonable starting point. Let the world unite behind it and consider the next step when Saddam obstructs them again, as he is likely to do. Planning for US rule of a post-war Iraq only emphasises American arrogance and makes a solution of the problems of the Middle East harder to achieve.


Independent on Sunday – 13.10.2002

"Putin is right, Blair wrong

Tony Blair had a bumpy ride on his foreign travels. The leaders of the other major powers in the United Nations appear to be far more reluctant to threaten Saddam with force at this stage. Downing Street was keen to play up the willingness of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to agree to a new UN resolution over Iraq. But during Mr Blair's visit to Moscow at the end of last week, Mr Putin refused to support the threat of war, and explicitly mocked Mr Blair's dossier purporting to show Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Putin is right to be wary. The position of the divided US administration - as far as a divided administration can have a position - remains imperiously hawkish. President Bush seeks a single UN resolution authorising the return of the weapons inspectors and a possible war against Saddam. If there is no UN resolution the US government - or some of its senior members - has hinted that it would go to war anyway.

Already, the US government is speaking of imposing a military regime after removing Saddam. It is leaping several hurdles without paying much attention to the sensitivities of the international community or the logistical problems involved in each individual leap.

Increasingly, it is clear that the international community would, more or less, unite around a new UN resolution that calls for the weapons inspectors to move back into Iraq. This was the point of agreement between Mr Blair and Mr Putin. After the meeting, the Russian President declared that the world had to “unquestionably ensure” that the UN weapons inspectors returned to Iraq.

This is a modest and reasonable starting point, one that most of the world can unite behind. The UN can consider the next step if and when Saddam obstructs them again.

Threatening war, and planning for a post-Saddam Iraq, are merely ways to divide the international community. And a divided international community would be a much more dangerous prospect than the threat that is currently posed by Iraq.


The Independent – 18.10.2002

"The real threat comes from terrorism, not rogue states"

The logic of George Bush's campaign against the axis of evil, never persuasive, is coming apart in his hands. After months of heavyweight war rhetoric directed at Iraq, the US State Department has casually claimed that North Korea has admitted it has a nuclear weapons programme. Given that the justification for using military force against Saddam Hussein is to prevent his developing weapons of mass destruction, and particularly nuclear weapons, the inconsistencies of US policy are exposed. Since at least January, the US has believed that North Korea, unlike Iraq, has enough plutonium for “at least one, possibly two, nuclear weapons”.

Yet, where Iraq is threatened with invasion, the forceful deposition of Saddam and US rule, Sean McCormack, the White House spokesman, says of North Korea: “We seek a peaceful resolution of this situation.”

If Saddam is so untrustworthy that the US believes he can only be disarmed by being deposed, why does the US believe Kim Jong Il will get rid of his nukes “in a verifiable manner” when he has gone back on North Korea's promise of non-proliferation given to South Korea, Japan and the US itself in 1994?

The truth is that US policy towards North Korea is sensible, while that towards Iraq is not. In the former case, the US is working with its allies in the region to put economic and political pressure on the North Korean government. It is using North Korea's alleged admission that it has broken the 1994 agreement as a pretext for withdrawing the offer of aid (which includes support for two nuclear reactors - although why a basket-case economy like North Korea needs a nuclear energy programme is baffling).

As the bombing of Bali reminded the world, the terrorist threat to the West comes from fluid networks of extremist organisations rather than from the rogue states that so dominate the mythology of US foreign policy. If a policy of carrot, stick and coalition can work to contain the threat from North Korea, why cannot the same logic be applied to Iraq? If it were, that might encourage Arab and Muslim nations to join in the much more difficult struggle against stateless terrorism.


The Independent – 8.11.2002

"Not even the UN can reconcile the case for war with the case for peace"

It is infinitely preferable that President Bush is acting against Iraq through the United Nations than on his own. But no form of words can bridge the gap between those who think Saddam Hussein's regime must be destroyed and those who believe that, bad though Saddam's survival may be, a war to get rid of him would be worse.

There is some common ground between the American hawks and the Russian and French doves, and it is reflected in the bulk of the text of the draft resolution that may be voted on today. It rehearses the history of Iraq's 11-year defiance of the UN and sets out the terms of a new inspection regime designed to prevent Saddam developing weapons of mass destruction.

The US has no faith in inspections, seeing them as a sop to international opinion and a prop to domestic support for military action. And it is true that the outlook for the inspectors is pessimistic - Saddam did his utmost to frustrate and evade the previous inspection regime. But inspections could serve two important purposes. First, they could inhibit Saddam and make it more difficult for him to develop his arsenal of illegal weapons. Second, they are necessary to make the case against Saddam in the court of world opinion, and thus to sustain the broadest possible coalition against him.

But the real haggling over the past eight weeks has been over the wording of the part that spells out the consequences for Iraq if the inspections are thwarted. The phrase used by the UN to authorise the use of military force on the last five occasions was “all necessary means” in Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda, or “all measures necessary” in Bosnia.

The draft currently before the UN Security Council speaks only of “serious consequences” for Iraq, and further weakens the effect by saying that Iraq has already been “repeatedly warned” of them. When the wording of a UN resolution is ambiguous like this, its meaning depends crucially on what the permanent members of the Security Council say it means when they pass it. France and Russia, therefore, have considerable scope to claim that the resolution does not automatically authorise military action.

In that sense, therefore, the passing of a resolution solves nothing. If the worst comes to the worst, the US will go to war with only Britain by its side, arguing, as it did in Operation Desert Fox in 1998, that the action has been authorised by the UN.

But it is important that President Bush has been hauled back from the more impetuous urgings of the war party in Washington. The US administration has downplayed talk of regime change in favour of the agreed line about “disarming” Iraq, which has all the smoothness of Blairspeak. Not that Tony Blair can take too much credit for the moderation of the US line - that has been achieved by the almost total isolation of the US and, above all, by the wariness of the American voter about land-war casualties.

It also matters that President Bush chose to work through the UN, even if the arguments about whether and when military action is justified will continue. At least those arguments will now take place in the context of international law and on the assumption that unilateral action is undesirable.

The UN resolution by no means provides Mr Bush or Mr Blair with the moral cover needed to wage war. The outlook may be better than it was when the hawks had the upper hand in the White House, but the danger of the US launching a counter-productive war in Iraq remains worryingly high.


The Independent – 3.12.2002

"If Saddam is such a monster, why did we arm him and trade with him?"

According to the Foreign Office dossier, Saddam Hussein: crimes and human rights abuses, “Iraq is a terrifying place to live”. It certainly is, and even the most vociferous anti-war campaigner would have to agree that Saddam heads a brutal, cruel, murderous regime. There is something vaguely pornographic about the Government's little compendium of sadism, with its graphic, stomach-turning descriptions of eye gouging, acid baths and electric drills. But there is no reason to doubt that these things are commonplace in Baathist Iraq, and that the Iraqi people, the Middle East and the world generally would be happier and safer without Saddam.

Why then, one is forced to ask, did the British and American governments show such enthusiasm for supporting and arming this monster during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s? It is not an adequate response to plead the realpolitik that the Iranian ayatollahs were a more potent threat to Western interests, or that, if we didn't arm him, others would (the defence mounted by the late Alan Clark during the Arms-to-Iraq scandal). For Saddam used the very weapons that the West supplied to him to annexe Kuwait, an outcome infinitely worse than anything the CIA imagined the Iranians were about to visit upon the region.

Why, also, were Western governments at the time so utterly indifferent to the fate of the Kurds gassed at Halabja in 1988? One of the images that outrage left behind is reproduced in the Government's dossier. It has retained its chilling quality, but it didn't move the British or American governments of the day to action. The neglect of Iraq, and indeed of Afghanistan, of East Timor and countless other obscure territories, until they became a nuisance, are not just scars on our national conscience, but, on a long-term view, entirely inimical to our national interests. This dossier should remind us of that salient fact.

Tony Blair and Jack Straw are, of course, quite entitled to point out that these instances of British government hypocrisy took place under the previous lot, and were nothing to do with them. Indeed Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary at the time of the Scott report, did a good deal to expose the hypocrisy and dishonesty of Conservative ministers under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Mr Cook went on to become Foreign Secretary and to experience problems of his own with the “ethical dimension” of foreign policy, but the point now is to remind this government about the central importance that human rights should play in foreign policy.

So we should be impatient when ministers, so energetically pursuing the (familiar) case against Saddam, make excuses for the human rights abuses perpetrated by our “friends”. From the Israeli army's abuse of Palestinian civilians in the occupied territories to General Dostum's ill-treatment of prisoners of war in Afghanistan to the endemic cruelty of Algeria's near civil war, we hear little protest from the United States and governments in the European Union. Still less do Western governments dare to criticise abuses by powerful trading partners or close strategic allies such as China, Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan. Indeed the treatment of prisoners at Camp X-Ray and our own policy towards refugees are not exactly a model of liberal practice.

Saddam Hussein may be as mad, bad, and dangerous to know as the Government says he is; but as with so many regimes around the world today, we seemed very content with him for a disturbingly long time.


Independent on Sunday – 15.12.2002

"If there is to be a war, the world needs to know why"

True believers in the “Axis of Evil” have had a good week. First came claims that Iraq had given the deadly VX chemical agent to al-Qa'ida. Then a Korean freighter was intercepted in the Arabian Sea, carrying a hidden cargo of Scud missiles bound for Yemen, which also happens to be a lair of the terrorist organisation. There followed new allegations that Iran is secretly pursuing nuclear weapons. Even President Bush's severest critics were pressed to deny that he has a point when he brandishes the threat of a rogue state developing weapons of mass destruction and passing them on to terrorist groups.

This febrile atmosphere makes it more important than ever to distinguish between war with Iraq, which seems increasingly likely, and the wider war on terrorism. Contrary to the view of the Bush administration, they are not simply two sides of the same coin.

For one thing, as we have repeatedly pointed out, an attack on Iraq will only fuel anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world, increasing sympathy for al-Qa'ida and driving new recruits into its ranks. Second, as we have also underlined, there is no proof of links between the terrorist organisation and Baghdad, beyond the fact that they have a common enemy in the United States.

All Washington can offer is bald assertions, without elaboration, from the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, and more detailed allegations from unidentified “senior officials”. When pressed for evidence, the administration shelters behind the familiar and convenient mantra of how sensitive intelligence sources must be protected. But this will not do.

If Mr Bush decides on war, the world is entitled to know why. In 1962, John Kennedy presented unassailable photographic proof of Soviet missiles in Cuba when he imposed a blockade on the island. This president must provide comparable proof of danger if he chooses to attack Iraq now.

The clock is ticking. The UN Security Council meets on Thursday to discuss Saddam Hussein's weapons declaration. The Americans are far advanced with their military build-up, ready for war at short notice. Here in Britain defence chiefs are warning that our troops must soon leave for the Gulf if war with Iraq is to take place before the heat of the spring.

The Prime Minister, to his credit, has so far shown caution, wanting to give diplomacy a chance. Fortunately, Mr Bush's deeds in the 15 months since the terrorist attacks have been more measured than his sometimes intemperate language. He overruled his most hawkish advisers, choosing to deal with Saddam Hussein through the UN. The same hardliners now urge him to use Iraq's opaque declaration of its weapons' capabilities as grounds for military action. But Mr Bush must resist that temptation. Having embarked upon the UN route, he must stick with it.


The Independent – 20.12.2002

"However flawed the Iraqi document, it offers no new reasons to use force"

THE PRELIMINARY findings of the UN's chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, which were presented to the UN Security Council yesterday, came as an anti-climax on two fronts. Awaited with eagerness around the world, they gave little succour to those looking for an unambiguous pretext for war, while providing scant comfort to those intent on preserving peace. They were a recipe for maintaining the present, uneasy truce - which is perhaps the best outcome for now.

The Security Council was told, first, that for all its 12,000 pages, the dossier produced by Iraq contained little that was new; little, in fact, that offered any advance on past declarations by Baghdad. But members were also told that the only way of establishing the veracity, or otherwise, of Iraq's claims was to continue to expand the current inspections regime. In other words, the prescription was more of the same: rigorous testing backed by what Britain and the United States have called the “credible threat” of force.

Mr Blix and his colleague from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed al-Baradei, have another five weeks to complete their findings and present their final report. To date, however, their inspections in Iraq have turned up - in their words - “no evidence of prohibited activities”, although they believe that there are “gaps” in what Iraq has declared. Some, but not all, of these relate to materials or facilities identified by the previous Unscom inspection team before 1999 but not admitted by Baghdad.

Between now and 27 January there are several scenarios that could tip the balance in favour of peace, or war. The inspectors just might come across proof that Iraq has pursued a weapons programme despite all its protestations to the contrary. Baghdad might abandon its current policy of co-operating with the inspection teams, although one source of conflict appeared to have been eliminated yesterday, when Baghdad said that it would make available its weapons scientists for interview. Least likely, from the present perspective, is the possibility that Iraq will augment its dossier to admit that the US and Britain are right about the extent of its weapons development.

Under UN Security Council resolution 1441, however, only the combination of proven falsehoods in Iraq's dossier and failure to comply with the new regime of inspections would constitute a trigger for war. Even then, however, there could be disagreement in the Security Council about whether a new resolution is needed. Washington's view is that no further resolution is needed; the view of France and several others is that it is. Britain - in the words of Jack Straw this week - says a second resolution would be “preferable”. Syria's refusal to attend yesterday's Security Council meeting does not bode well for speedy UN agreement either. Damascus objects to being given sight of only an expurgated version of Iraq's dossier.

Whatever the inadequacies of the Iraqi document, it is clear that there is as yet no sound reason to resort to force. Two separate developments this week have only underlined the need for caution. The unconvincing show of unity staged by Iraq's emigre opposition in London illustrated just how ill-prepared the external opposition is for power. Meanwhile, a report by the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee warned of the popular fury that any US-led assault could unleash in the Arab world.

These considerations make it all the more imperative that if force is used, it must only be with full UN backing and in complete compliance with resolution 1441. There can be no ambiguity at the next stage of decision- making and, above all, no rush to war.


Independent on Sunday – 22.12.2002

"We must heed the lesson from the pulpit"

Tony Blair has told British troops to prepare for war. President Bush has declared that he is doubling the number of US troops in the Gulf. The carefully orchestrated announcements in Washington and London heighten a growing sense that war against Iraq is inevitable. This is precisely what we need to guard against over the next few weeks: being dragged into a conflict on the grounds of inevitability, all previous concerns brushed aside by the momentum of the military build-up. Thankfully, there are some public figures in Britain who are not intoxicated by the intensification of activity in the Gulf, who are still capable of standing back and expressing opposition to war. As we report today, several bishops - including the new Archbishop of Canterbury - are opposed to war against Iraq, and many more will express deep reservations this Christmas.

Their voices are welcome for two reasons. The polling evidence suggests that there is no appetite for the war against Iraq among a majority of voters in Britain. Yet their doubts and fears are hopelessly under-represented in the House of Commons. Tony Blair and Iain Duncan Smith are in full agreement over the need for a military attack. Many Labour MPs who originally had doubts are currently appeased by the involvement of the United Nations. Only the Liberal Democrats continue to raise questions. The dissenting bishops are speaking for a constituency that extends well beyond their Christmas Day congregations, as a voice of conscience that can speak for us all, regardless of religious faith, in this post-Christian age. We urged Rowan Williams, on his appointment, to speak out on issues that mattered. On this one, he has proved himself a conviction cleric and we applaud him for it.

This debate must not end just because Mr Bush and Mr Blair are preparing for war. The war has not begun. There is no discernible trigger for such a conflict. A breach of the UN resolution requires that Saddam Hussein conceals information on weapons and fails to co-operate with the UN inspectors. Even this definition allows room for interpretation. What if the UN inspectors discovered significant weapons, but they were then destroyed? Would the discovery be enough to justify a war, as some hawks in the US believe?

The questions are raised to highlight the fact that nothing is fully resolved. There is still time to reflect on the appalling dangers of the war before we find ourselves fighting it. Most immediately, the dangers are to the Iraqi civilians who have already suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of Saddam. Under the guise of coming to their rescue, the US threatens to kill some of them. Of course, that is not the intention of a military attack, but it is the inevitable consequence. Sometimes it is a consequence that is perversely lost in the focus on the politics of the situation. If there is a war, The Independent on Sunday will endeavour not to censor the consequences, and it is to be hoped that other organisations will not do so either. It is a myth that new technology means we can have military action without casualties.

A risky venture against Saddam would be justified if there were conclusive evidence that he possessed weapons of mass destruction, that he was refusing to destroy them in the light of the weapons inspection, and that he was planning to use them. Currently, on all three counts, there is no excuse for an attack. Instead, there is compelling evidence to suggest that the previous policy of containment and deterrence was working. Many Cabinet ministers have private doubts about the war. Several senior Conservatives are uneasy with the position of their leader. Let them speak out before it is too late. Some of the bolder bishops have realised that there is still time to put their case. They are speaking out before it really is too late. At this season, traditionally one of goodwill to all men, we urge our politicians to pull back from the brink and opt for the hard road to peace.

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