AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
The coverage of the run-up to the Iraq Inquiry’s publication on Wednesday has predictably centred on the politicians and government officials it may criticise. Finally, is someone going to be held responsible? This focus is particularly understandable for the families of the 179 British service personnel who died. Thirteen years on there has been insufficient accounting for the decisions that plunged Britain, at America’s persuasion, into a foreign policy disaster from which it has not recovered. So far, we have been confined to half truths and inconvenient facts; Tony Blair says he believed the case for war at the time on Iraq but no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. Anger at Blair’s continued failure to give an unrestrained apology for supporting George W Bush’s calamitous invasion still boils, such is the sense of injustice. Iraq also started a gradual slide for the (New) Labour Party that has recently sped up, with unruly MPs now led, notionally, by Jeremy Corbyn, who opposed the war. At Westminster, Iraq, to many, is unfinished business.
What makes the hell that was unleashed in 2003 so unforgettable is that Iraq’s torment is continual and unrelenting. Early on Sunday morning an inferno raged in Baghdad after an Islamic State truck bomber drove into a packed shopping centre on one of the last nights of Ramadan, killing more than 200 people. Such atrocities make the “closure” so often spoken about, and sought by Whitehall officials who want us to move on, impossible. In Karrada, the district where Sunday’s bombing occurred, people were still digging to unearth bodies a day later. The fire made some identifications impossible. “The list of victims I saw included whole families – the father and his sons, the mother and her daughters – whole families were wiped out,” one emergency worker told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency for whom I worked in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010.
Such bloodshed makes the findings of Sir John Chilcot, the inquiry chairman, all the more important. His work has taken almost six years. Yet his report will barely register among Iraqis; the reasoning of Whitehall mandarins is one thing, the unfolding horror of assault by a jihadist death cult another.
Iraq is broken. No world leader wants to own the problem but the amnesia of the White House and Downing Street aids the medieval tactics of IS whose increased ability to hit Western cities is the legacy of 2003 that we are living with. A rump state in Baghdad, a hapless fiction far from the principled democracy Bush said the war would usher in, sits atop a sectarian cesspit. Most of the Iraqi public holds politicians in contempt; the motorcade of the country’s well-meaning but marginalised prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, was pelted with shoes – the worst Arab insult – on Sunday when he visited Karrada. Hastily broken up concrete slabs were similarly hurled in his direction.
Abadi is little more than a caretaker. Order, let alone change, is impossible. Iraq has no political unity. A new and corrupt elite, that has grown rich on the back of Western aid and plundered oil wealth, hobbles Abadi at every turn since he said last year that he would root out the graft.
While America and Britain are responsible for invading Iraq, other mistakes have been self-inflicted. After Saturday night’s bombing Abadi announced a farcical security overhaul, including a ban on hand held bomb detectors proven to be useless at least six years ago. It is a sign of the Iraqi security establishment’s ineptitude and self-delusion that they continued to use them. Expectations of any improvement in Baghdad are low.
Similarly, hopes among Britons over Chilcot’s deliberations are limited. Will Chilcot actually point the finger at anyone? The report, said to extend to 2.6 million words, is three times longer than the Bible. It would be odd for it to produce no new information. But Britain has grown used to the inadequacy of these reports, given the various reports – such as Butler and Hutton – that have exonerated governments over Iraq.
While Blair remains the target of the war’s opponents, reports suggest he will be spared serious censure. Spies he relied on may not be so lucky. Much as America’s Central Intelligence Agency was fooled by fabricators who sung like canaries, in some cases for considerable financial reward after defecting from Saddam Hussein’s regime, long-held doubts on the role of MI6 may leave it looking more Inspector Clouseau than James Bond.
Did they analyse anything at all, or were they on the clock to give Blair something to justify his government’s support for Bush? Sir Robin Butler, speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, reminded us that while he did not believe the former prime minister lied during his 2004 review into the intelligence relating to Saddam’s alleged WMD, he had most probably “exaggerated the evidence”. Such polite language is the realm of civil servants and not what most people want from the Iraq Inquiry.
“I think it will be an extremely thorough piece of work,” Sir Robin said, hoping that “lessons will be learned”. In plain English this roughly translated as MI6 may get a rap on the knuckles. Like a script circulated for comment and changes before the main performance, the dramatis personae of Chilcot’s report have already been allowed to check and object to its findings.
The worst injustice would be for Whitehall to think it had gotten away with a folly far worse and far longer-lasting than Suez, to which Iraq remains compared despite it being a mismatch in terms of official incompetence, casualties, cost and long-lasting damage to national credibility. For all the time it took, the Chilcot inquiry is unlikely to change anyone’s fate. Blair has survived and made millions. Calls for war crimes charges are not likely to prove actionable. Bush lives quietly. Above all, Sunday’s bombing graphically illustrated that Iraqis will continue to die.