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Ahead of Chilcot: Revisiting the Controversies of the Iraq War

July 4th, 2016

By Julie Lenarz

Allow me to make one thing clear in advance: this article is written from the perspective of someone who strongly supported military intervention in Iraq in 2003 and still maintains the same position. To me, the removal of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal crime regime has always been a just cause. Seeing the mass graves and concentration camps with my own eyes has only reaffirmed my belief that it was the best available option.

That said, I never claimed moral superiority in regard to anyone else’s opinion. I always accepted, then and now, that there were legitimate reasons against the war. I have great respect for many of the people who opposed the intervention right from the start, including family members and close friends, and also for those who, over the cause of the war, shifted their standpoint from a pro-intervention to an anti-intervention position.

All I am asking for is a constructive, respectful and open-minded discussion about the complexity of the events leading up to the war and the intervention itself. Sadly, people no longer listen. They have, on both sides of the argument, made up their minds. Now, there only exists right or wrong, black or white; no maybes and no shades of grey.

However, it is important to learn lessons, just as it is crucial not to under or over-learn them.

The Chilcot Inquiry, tasked with examining many of the significant aspects of the UK’s involvement in Iraq, will publish its long-awaited report on Wednesday at 11am.  The report will rightfully criticise some of the decision-making processes of the government, intelligence agencies and military. There is also much fault to find with regard to the lack of post-war planning as well as the disbanding of the Iraqi army and De-Ba’athification.

However, what Chilcot will not present is evidence of the government leading us into an illegal war based on lies or recommendations for Tony Blair and others to face war crime charges in The Hague (something that has already been ruled out by ICC prosecutors). Why? Because it is not true.

That alone will be enough for the report to be dismissed by many as a whitewash, as we have previously seen with the Butler and Hutton reports and parliamentary investigations. Consequently, the Chilcot Inquiry is unlikely to add much value to a discussion that has long been hijacked by historical revisionism and hindsight hysteria, in light of which I will revisit the most controversial aspects of the war below.

The Casualties

Saddam Hussein’s regime is responsible for the disappearance, torture, and killing of so many people that it is still impossible to say how many exactly perished under his reign of terror. However, what is clear is that his regime was one of the worst criminal dictatorships of modern times.

According to Bakhtiar Amin, Human Rights Minister in the Iraqi Interim Government from June 2004 to May 2005, the Hussein regime was directly responsible for the death of at least one million people. Others put the number as high as twice that enormous figure of men, women and children butchered.

Two million people died or were injured in the war between Iran and Iraq. 200,000 people lost their lives in the first Gulf War. During the 1991 uprising, approximately 200,000 Shi’a Muslims were brutally slaughtered. 500,000 Kurds were subject to the Ba’athists’ genocidal policies. Of the half a million Marsh Arabs who lived in the country in the 1950s, as few as 20,000 now remain.

Saddam’s Iraq holds the world’s record in forced disappearances with over 200,000 people vanished forever. Half a million had to flee into the desert and an additional 4 million became refugees. 4,500 villages and towns were completely destroyed and hundreds exposed to chemical agents – it was the first time a regime used chemical weapons against its own civilian population. 110 torture prisons and concentration camps were in operation across the country. The mass graves are countless and still being dug out to this day.

We have all heard it before, the mantra that “Bush lied, a million died” and some even go as far as to suggest that the US-led coalition killed more people during the intervention than Saddam Hussein in his 35 years in power.

It is a grotesque and irresponsible misrepresentation of reality.

The Iraq Body Count, the most reliable source available and used as a point of reference by governments, NGOs and media alike, estimates that 119,905 Iraqis (combatants and non-combatants) were killed between 2003 and 2011.

15,141 (13%) of civilian casualties were directly caused by the US-led coalition, of which over half occurred during the siege of Fallujah in 2004. The vast majority of civilians were killed by Sunni and Shi’a insurgents, predominately by Al-Qaeda and Iranian militias.

The Legal Case

For over a decade the international community tried patiently and persistently to disarm Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The UNSC adopted no less than seventeen resolutions to secure the regime’s cooperation.  As such, the casus belli centred on Iraq’s multiple breaches of UNSCRs rather than its WMD programme per se.

All arrangements between Iraq and the international community post-1991 were based on a ceasefire, explicitly tied to its disarmament. Resolution 678, the legal basis for military action during the first Gulf War, and Resolution 687, which determined the conditions for the ceasefire between the UN and Iraq, were of central importance. Both were never revoked and authorisation to use force remained in being throughout the years and was also the legal basis for military action in 1993 and 1998.

The legal adviser to the UN, Dr. Carl August Fleischhauer, confirmed that the original authority to use force in UNSCR 678 could revive, given the Security Council’s agreement that a violation of the ceasefire was in place.

This consideration was reflected in the drafting of UNSCR 1441. It not only confirmed that Iraq remained in “material breach” and gave it “a final opportunity to comply”, but also stated in operational paragraph 4, that a failure to comply unconditionally, immediately, and fully with the inspectors was itself a further material breach. As a result, it authorised “serious consequences”, as indicated in operational paragraph 13.

UNSCR 1441 was therefore arguably sufficient, in combination with previous UNSCRs, especially 678, but also 687, 660 and 1137, to lawfully take part in the war. Unanimously accepted, it was a legal refreshment.

Moreover, military action was sanctioned by the British parliament with 412 votes in favour to 149 opposed. National law has supremacy over international law.

The WMDs

It has become conventional wisdom that the Bush administration made up the WMD threat to wage an illegal war against Iraq. However, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s it was the dominant and widely held view among Western and non-Western governments and intelligence agencies that the country was still in possession of WMDs or at least had the intention to revive its WMD programme.

Bill Clinton said in 1998:

Now, let’s imagine the future. What if he fails to comply, and we fail to act, or we take some ambiguous third route which gives him yet more opportunities to develop this program of weapons of mass destruction and continue to press for the release of the sanctions and continue to ignore the solemn commitments that he made? Well, he will conclude that the international community has lost its will. He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you, he’ll use the arsenal. And I think every one of you who’s really worked on this for any length of time believes that, too.

This was not an unreasonable assumption given Iraq’s previous record of violations. Between 1983 and 1988, the Ba’athist regime used chemical weapons against Iranian civilians and their own civilian population on at least 195 occasions. According to the UN, 13.000 chemical bombs were used in those operations. Iraq, however, claims 19.500 were deployed, which constitutes a discrepancy of 6.500 unaccounted chemical bombs.

As Hans Blix, the UN’s chief weapons inspector, told Chilcot during his appearance in front of the inquiry: It seemed plausible to me at the time, and I also felt — I, like most people at the time, felt that Iraq retains weapons of mass destruction. I did not say so publicly. I said it perhaps to Mr Blair in September 2002 privately.”

“I talked to Prime Minister Blair on 20 February 2002 and then I said I still thought that there were prohibited items in Iraq.”

His account is consistent with the Blix report of January 2003. In his report Blix stated that, despite Iraq claiming to have only produced a pilot scale of CWs, UNMOVIC disputed the account believing Iraq was in possession of large scale, weaponised material. Moreover, UN inspectors found 122 mm chemical rockets in a new bunker close to Baghdad. They were also of the opinion that Iraq had produced more anthrax than declared, without any evidence of the destruction of the material. Finally, Iraq allowed inspectors access to only 400 personnel, although UNSCOM knew of 3.500 people involved in its weapons programme. Therefore, Blix was clear up to the point of conflict that Saddam was in breach of Resolution 1441 (no immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access).

Charles Duelfer, head of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) that conducted the investigation of the scope of Iraq’s WMD post-intervention, reported in 2004 that, although from the mid-1990s onwards Saddam made a tactical decision to stop his WMD programme, he kept the necessary scientists and technicians to revive it at anytime. Moreover, the report concluded that Saddam deceived the international community and his own army into thinking he still had WMDs because he believed none of his enemies would dare attack a country with an active WMD arsenal.

That means with sanctions crumbling (between 1999-2000, Iraqi forces had fired over 700 times into No-Fly Zone) in 2001/2002, the Hussein regime would have had the intent, know-how and money (oil prices were rising from over $30 a barrel in 2003 to almost $140 five years later) to relaunch its WMD programme.

No Deceit, No Conspiracy

A deliberate lie is fundamentally different to acting in good faith based on available information at the time under the most challenging of circumstances that eventually turns out to be incorrect. Going into Iraq was a political decision, but it was not grounded in a deceit or conspiracy. Hindsight is a luxury policy makers do not have.

Again, I refer you to what Blix told the Chilcot inquiryI have never questioned the good faith of Mr Blair or Bush or anyone else. On some occasions when I talked to Blair on the telephone, 20 February, I certainly felt that he was absolutely sincere in his belief.

Moreover, at the time of the intervention the intelligence agencies of the countries fiercely opposed to war – for instance, Germany or  France – were also convinced that Iraq was in possession of WMDs. The disagreement was over how to deal with the threat, not the threat itself.

The BND, the German Bundesnarchitendienst, played an extensive role in providing the US government with central information. The intelligence shared by their Iraqi informant Rafid Ahmed Alwan, best known under his cover name Curveball, was deemed of such importance that the BND felt unable to keep the information from their American and British counterparts, despite the Schroeder government’s strong opposition to war.

In dozens of interviews with the BND, Curveball reported that he had witnessed activities related to Iraq’s WMD programme while working as a chemical engineer in Iraq. He spoke of mobile biological weapons labs that were housed in trucks and could evade inspections easily. Those transcripts were forwarded to the CIA and used in Colin Powell’s key speech at the UN. The BND did not, however, grant the CIA or MI6 direct access to Curveball.

According to a member of the German Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, the committee was convinced that Iraq was in possession of WMDs, after the BND President assured them– before and after the Powell speech – that Curveball was a reliable source: “We explicitly asked about the briefing given to the United Nations by the American Secretary of State Powell. Is that true? And we have not had the impression, after the disclosure of our secret service, that anything was wrong with Powell’s evidence.”

The BND only distanced itself publicly from Curveball, after it became clear that the information he had provided them with was a complete fabrication. Nevertheless, the BND paid him a net monthly income of €3000 until the end of 2008. They also helped him to attain German citizenship and he still resides in the country today.

Blood for Oil

One of the most persistent arguments against the intervention is that it was all about oil. But was it really? The “blood for oil” thesis, at best, represents a very small proportion of the truth.

Whilst Iraq has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, its output in the early 2000s was extremely modest and accounted for only 3% of total global productivity. Due to the geology of the oilfields and the poor infrastructure destroyed by years of war, Saddam’s negligence, and the sanctions regime, Iraq had the lowest yield of any major producer, amounting to just 0.8% of its potential output.

study by the Council on Foreign Relations and the James Baker Institute of Rice University, prior to the war, concluded that “it would take nearly a decade and up to $40 billion to revive Iraq’s oil sector. That could lift Iraqi output to 4.2m-6m barrels per day, up from around 2.5m bpd today. However, it would still fall far short of Saudi Arabia’s whopping output of over 8m bpd today.”

By the end of 2011, the US had spent almost $802bn on funding the war and Iraq had additional debts of over $100 billion. On top of that, the US only imported roughly 13% of its oil from the Middle East at the time, the vast majority from Saudi Arabia.

In other words, intervening in Iraq was an extremely expensive undertaking for the US-led coalition with no guarantee or prospect of considerable profitability in the near or medium-term future.

13 years after the intervention, America has not a single significant oil deal with Baghdad anymore. Profiting most from Iraq’s oil reserves are PetroChina, Russian Lukoil and Pakistan Petroleum.

The 45 Minutes Claim

You cannot debate the Iraq war without someone sooner or later bringing up the infamous claim that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, which lay at the centre of the row between the BBC and No 10 Downing Street.

Contrary to public perception, the little piece of information, which led to the government being accused of “sexing up” intelligence, was never central to the war argument. In 40.000 written parliamentary questions between September 2002 and May 2003, only two mentioned 45 minutes. In about 5000 oral questions, the 45 minutes claim was not mentioned even once. Tony Blair referred to it only on one occasion, but not in his key address to parliament.

It is also worth noting that MI6 warned that Iraqi forces could fire chemical or biological weapons at between 20 and 45 minutes’ notice, yet the government opted for the most conservative estimate in its dossier.

The Poodle Myth

We blindly followed the Bush administration into war – at least according to many critics of the intervention.

But looking at the timeline of events, it is a problematic conclusion to reach. The US was involved in military action against the Hussein regime long before Bush entered office; his policy was a continuation of actions taken by the Clinton administration throughout the 1990s.

The Blair government, which came to power in 1997, at a time when Bush was still a local politician in Texas preparing to get himself elected to the White House on an isolationist foreign policy ticket, worked hand in hand with the Clinton administration against the Iraqi regime. Before leaving office, Clinton explicitly warned London of the long-term dangers posed by the Hussein regime, including weapons of mass destruction.

Tony Blair, meanwhile, made his views about the Iraqi regime and its horrific human rights record abundantly clear in his 1999 Chicago speech (also known as The Blair Doctrine), in which he singled out Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. As outlined in the speech, he holds the belief that if a government is no longer willing or able to protect its own civilian population from harm, it becomes the responsibility of the international community to get involved. This belief led him to support military action in Kosovo (1999) and Sierra Leone (2000) and taking part in the second Gulf War was a logical continuation of his foreign policy doctrine.

Yet despite the incredibly complex and multi-facetted nature of the decision-making process, a decade after the war we are stuck with thought-terminating clichés when what we should have is an intellectually honest and rigorous discussion about the rights and wrongs of the intervention.

For people like myself it means to admit that, while, on balance, removing Saddam Hussein’s regime was the right thing to do, we got several things terribly wrong which led to chaos and bloodshed. Likewise, those opposed to the war should acknowledge that we, too, had genuine and legitimate reasons to support the overthrow of a totalitarian, fascist, and genocidal regime.

Going to war with Iraq was so much more than a clear cut case, black and white, right and wrong decision. Only when both sides are ready to admit that can we really begin to learn the important lessons from over a decade ago.

About Julie Lenarz

Julie is the Executive Director of the HSC and co-chairs the Security and Defence division. She tweets @MsJulieLenarz.