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Chilcot Report on Iraq War Offers Devastating Critique of Tony Blair

On July 28, 2002, roughly eight months before the American-led invasion of Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain sent President George W. Bush a personal note that alarmed some of Mr. Blair's top national security aides — and was greeted with relief in Washington.

"I will be with you, whatever," Mr. Blair wrote, in what appeared to be a blanket promise of British support if the United States went to war to topple Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader. Getting rid of Mr. Hussein was "the right thing to do," Mr. Blair wrote, predicting that "his departure would free up the region."

Fourteen years later, Mr. Blair's pledge was revealed publicly on Wednesday as part of a voluminous, seven-year official investigation into how and why Britain went to war in Iraq.

The main conclusions in the report, by the independent Iraq Inquiry Committee, were familiar: that Britain, like the United States, used flawed intelligence to justify the invasion, that Iraq posed no immediate national security threat, that the allies acted militarily before all diplomatic options had been exhausted and that there was a lack of planning for what would happen once Mr. Hussein was removed.

Yet the report still had enormous resonance in Britain, in part because it came at a moment when Britons are engaged in a debate over their country's place in the world after their vote last month to leave the European Union.

The report also amounted to a moment of searing public accountability for Mr. Blair, whose legacy has been defined in Britain almost entirely, and almost entirely negatively, for his decision to go into Iraq alongside the United States.

Mr. Blair's note to Mr. Bush was part of what the report showed to be a campaign to back the United States before the war and to steer the White House toward building diplomatic support for efforts to address the perceived threat from Iraq.

The report's 2.6 million words describe a prime minister who wanted stronger evidence of the need for military action and a more solid plan for occupying Iraq and reconstituting a government there. Beyond its pledge of fealty to Mr. Bush, the July 28, 2002, note warned broadly of the risks of "unintended consequences" from an invasion and presciently forecast that other European nations would be reluctant to back the war.

But by the time the invasion was launched, most of Mr. Blair's warnings and conditions had been swept aside, the report concluded. The chairman of the committee, John Chilcot, said on Wednesday morning that Mr. Blair had been advised by his diplomats and ministers of "the inadequacy of U.S. plans" and their concern "about the inability to exert significant influence on U.S. planning."

Mr. Blair chose to override their objections.

Within hours of the report's release, Mr. Blair appeared at a nearly two-hour news conference in which he acknowledged missteps and intelligence failures, but defended his decision to go to war. Now rejected by his own Labour Party, his place in British history defined by those crucial days in 2002 and 2003, he looked humbled, even haunted, saying that not a day went by when he did not think about decisions he made more than a decade ago.

"There will not be a day of my life where I do not relive and rethink what happened," Mr. Blair said. "People ask me why I spend so much time in the Middle East today. This is why. This is why I work on Middle East peace."

A decisive moment seemed to come when Mr. Blair's draft of the 2002 note to Mr. Bush, classified "Secret-Personal," circulated to two senior aides, David Manning and Jonathan Powell. The report disclosed that they urged Mr. Blair to soften or delete the "I will be with you, whatever" declaration, and not to tie his political fate too tightly to Mr. Bush's judgments.

Mr. Manning, a former ambassador to Washington and Mr. Blair's chief foreign policy adviser, testified that he had told Mr. Blair the sentence was "too sweeping," that it seemed to "close off options" and that there was "a risk it would be taken at face value."

Mr. Blair later said he thought he had amended the sentence, but he had not.

Mr. Blair insisted that he had provided no "blank check" to Washington, and the note quickly moved to an assessment of the many difficulties of such a war, including building a political coalition to back it and the "need to commit to Iraq for the long term."

He warned of "unintended consequences," like large numbers of Iraqi civilian casualties or an eruption "of the Arab street."

The report concluded that Mr. Blair and the British government both underestimated the difficulties and consequences of the war and significantly overestimated the influence he would have over Mr. Bush.

The results have haunted the Iraq, the United States and Britain ever since: more than 200 British dead, including 179 soldiers, at least 4,500 American dead and more than 150,000 Iraqi dead, most of them civilians, as sectarian warfare, terrorist groups and actors like Iran have filled the vacuum left by Mr. Hussein.

Just this week, at least 250 Iraqi civilians died from a car bomb in Baghdad as they celebrated the final days of the holy month of Ramadan.

As Mr. Chilcot's committee delved back into what seems to many young Britons like ancient history — students entering college this year were 4 years old when the critical decisions were being made — they found something of an echo chamber between London and Washington.

An intelligence official, Tim Dowse, told the committee that British officials were nervous enough about United States suspicions that aluminum tubes acquired by Mr. Hussein could be used in centrifuges to enrich uranium that they had initially kept the subject out of a British summary of Iraq's weapons projects published in 2002.

After Vice President Dick Cheney had talked about the tubes on American television, "we felt that it would look odd if we said nothing on the subject," Mr. Towse said. "It would open us up to questions."

So the report mentioned the tubes but noted "we couldn't confirm that they were intended for a nuclear program."

Such questions about the prewar intelligence were left unresolved, despite Mr. Blair's oft-repeated desire for a "smoking gun."

Mr. Blair stressed on Wednesday that the report concluded that he had not invented or distorted intelligence. But he won little sympathy: The current leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, apologized for the party's having led Britain into the war, and the governing Conservatives were happy to let the Labour Party eat itself up over Mr. Blair and Iraq.

The sense that Britain was led into carnage by a foolish devotion to the United States has had lasting consequences and made members of Parliament reluctant to authorize further military action alongside Washington.

The legacy of Iraq kept Britain from joining the United States in bombing Syria over its use of chemical weapons. It was also a factor in President Obama's decision to back away from a military strike on Syria's chemical weapons facilities, and to delay military activity there against the Islamic State.

But having been a forceful ally of President Bill Clinton in the Kosovo war and having intervened successfully in Sierra Leone in 2000, Mr. Blair was a believer in using force to impose a more rational world order, and after the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, he was quick to align himself with Mr. Bush.

The inquiry's verdict on the planning and conduct of British military involvement in Iraq was withering, rejecting Mr. Blair's contention that the difficulties encountered after the invasion could not have been foreseen.

"We do not agree that hindsight is required," Mr. Chilcot said. "The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability and Al Qaeda activity in Iraq were each explicitly identified before the invasion."

Mr. Blair's concern before the invasion of Iraq, the report makes clear, was less about the need to overthrow Mr. Hussein than about how to justify doing so.

The intelligence that Mr. Blair presented in public had a great deal more certainty than his officials presented in private, the report said.

The report says: "At no stage was the hypothesis that Iraq might not have chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or programs identified and examined" by Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee.

"The U.K. chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted," the report said. "Military action at that time was not a last resort."

[Source: By Steven Erlanger and David E. Sanger, International New York Times, London, 06Jul16]

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War in Afghanistan & Iraq
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