Ready. Set. Go! It was 8 in the morning and 100 journalists had three hours to digest 2.6 million words before forming hot takes on how irresponsible Tony Blair's decision to enter a war that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths was.
"It's like going into my final school comprehension exam," one journalist quipped. "I'm nervous," another responded.
"We recommend you start with the executive summary", one of the stewards helpfully suggested to anxious laughter.
After seven years, the Chilcot Report — the final conclusions of the UK's inquiry into the Iraq War — has finally been published. It comes to 12 volumes, or 2.6 million words — more than four times the length of War and Peace. The executive summary alone is 150,000 words.
Originally commissioned by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009, the conclusions could hardly come at a more tumultuous time in British politics. With both main parties are facing post-Brexit leadership challenges, many are speculating that Jeremy Corbyn has been clinging on to the leadership of the Labour Party so that he can condemn his predecessor.
Behind the politics are the families that were torn apart by the six-year conflict. Relatives of some of the 179 British soldiers who were killed in Iraq were in central London on Wednesday morning to read embargoed copies of the reports. While initially they were going to be charged £767 for the privilege of taking them away afterwards, family members were eventually given copies for free.
Less involved were the bereaved families of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died, with commentators noting that the publication of the report on the same day as Eid – when Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan – was further indication of how little the British establishment had considered their inclusion.
The report itself paints a familiar picture of Tony Blair as a Prime Minister who pandered to the US, while spewing conflicting statements about his reasons for entering into a war that cost the UK at least £9.2 billion and "failed to achieve its goals." Blair employed the "tactic" of emphasising the threat Iraq might pose to rouse support rather than presenting a more balanced consideration, the report says, with Blair primarily influenced by a desire to remain influential to George W Bush. Former British ambassador to the US David Manning told the inquiry that Iraq became a priority for the UK in the early months of 2002, after the US administration began to insist on making it more prominent. "The Americans were determined to focus on it. We weren't given a choice."
In a statement directly before publication, Sir John Chilcot – the civil servant who led the inquiry – noted that 2003 was the first time since WWII that the UK took part in an invasion and full-scale occupation of a sovereign state.
Families had waited in silence for Chilcot to arrive to the half-empty Churchill auditorium on the ground floor of the Queen Elizabeth II Center, right in the heart of Westminster. He turned up seven minutes after his speech was scheduled to begin — prompting jokes from journalists about his inability to keep to deadlines.
At the end of his statement — delivered from the stage in a calm and measured tone — most relatives, seated in the front few rows, applauded. One man stood up to clap, while beside him a bereaved mother and father put their arms around each other.
As he spoke, hundreds of protesters gathered outside to call for Blair to face charges for war crimes.
Demands for Blair to face trial have been ongoing since the Iraq War began, with one group of Brits even offering a financial reward to anyone who attempted to citizen's arrest the former Prime Minister. On Monday, the International Criminal Court warned that its jurisdiction did not cover crimes of aggression. However, while the Chilcot report didn't rule specifically on the legality of the war, it said suggestively that the circumstances that decided there was a legal basis for UK military action were far from satisfactory.
Some relatives of British soldiers who were killed in Iraq wiped tears from their eyes as they left following Chilcot's statement. "A good result. A good result," one repeated. "It really was an unjust war."
Sarah O'Connor – sister of Bob O'Connor, who died when a plane was shot down over Baghdad – cried as she said that if Blair still stood behind his the decision to go to war he should look her in the eyes. "He thinks he's the puppet master pulling the strings," she said. "There is one terrorist in the world that the world needs to be aware of and his name is Tony Blair."
The families said they would spend the next few weeks forensically analysing the report to determine what further steps they could take, including deciding whether a prosecution was viable.
The Chilcot Inquiry was originally set up with the remit of advising on "lessons learned" from the conflict. In writing, these hinged on appearing farcical, considering the destruction that was caused. What was basically an "Invasions for Dummies" section included the suggestion that public understanding of any proposed war is essential, getting intelligence from the ground in the country you are planning to invade is important, and that leaders must be scrupulous in discriminating between facts and opinion, while avoiding making the mistake of believing something just because it is repeated over and over again.
"Policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments," Chilcot said. "They were not challenged, and they should have been."
In March 2003 there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein and "military action at that time was not a last resort," Chilcot determined. He also concluded that the judgments about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were presented with a certainty that was not justified, and – despite explicit warnings – the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. "We do not believe that hindsight is required," Chilcot said – Blair had been warned of the likely fallout.
Chilcot also said that while the UK had an obligation to help the Iraqi people build a peaceful country post-invasion, "in practice, the UK's most consistent strategic objective in relation to Iraq was to reduce the level of its deployed troops."
Though dictator Saddam Hussein was responsible for the torture, murder, and general suppression of Iraqi civilians, his ousting has led to a widespread breakdown of security and huge increase in sectarian fighting. "Saddam has gone, but in his place we now have 1,000 Saddams," Kadhim Sharif Hassan Al-Jabbouri, the man who memorably toppled Hussein's statue in central Baghdad after the invasion, toldthe BBC earlier this week.
The impact of the Iraq War has been felt across the world, from the refugee crisis in Europe to the rise of the Islamic State (IS) — who claimed responsibility for the horrific bombing in Baghdad last weekend that killed at least 250. While their legal standing still remains to be determined, the calls for Blair to stand trial extend far beyond the UK. In April, a vigilante commander fighting Nigeria's IS-affiliated Boko Haram — currently ranked as the deadliest terrorist group in the world — told me he blamed the Islamist group's success on Blair and Bush's actions. "The West is hypocritical," he said. "Those leaders need to go on trial."
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