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We Might Finally Get Some Truth About the UK’s Role in Iraq — But Not Until Next Year

Launched in 2009, the Chilcot Inquiry was tasked with examining the country’s involvement in the Iraq War. Costing millions of pounds to the UK taxpayer, and suffering from years of delay, the report is finally on the horizon.

by Jenna Corderoy
Oct 29 2015, 7:00pm

A protester wearing a mask of Tony Blair stands outside Iraq Inquiry in London. Photo by Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

There were sighs of disbelief and frustration in Britain on Thursday as it was announced that the long-awaited findings of a major inquiry into the UK's role in the Iraq war would finally be published — next June or July.

Retired civil servant Sir John Chilcot has been investigating exactly what British politicians knew and when, before they agreed to join the US invasion, what part the UK played as the war went on, and what lessons can be learned since 2009.

There are huge questions to be answered about what the British public, its members of parliament, and its soldiers were told about Saddam Hussein's regime before and after it was decided to go to war — and there is anger that those answers have still not come, six years and millions of taxpayer pounds into the inquiry.

Members of the inquiry have interviewed 129 witnesses and pored over 150,000 government documents, including records of confidential conversations between former US President George Bush and former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair's decision to invade Iraq in the face of mass public opposition, using false claims about WMDs to justify it, has become his damning political legacy.

People are itching for conclusive answers, especially those whose children died alongside thousands of US personnel, fighting to free Iraq from a dictator they were told had chemical and biological weapons ready to deploy within 45 minutes. In August, 29 bereaved families wrote to Chilcot threatening legal action if he did not set a date for publication of his report by the end of the year.

But in a letter to UK Prime Minister David Cameron published today, Chilcot said the 2 million-word report would be completed in April, and then undergo national security checking which would take a couple of months.

Cameron wasn't happy. "Whilst it is welcome of course that there is now a clear end in sight for your Inquiry, I am disappointed," he replied. "And I know the families of those who served in Iraq will also be disappointed — that you do not believe it will be possible logistically to publish your report until early summer."

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Established in 2009 under former Prime Minister Gordon Brown's leadership, the Chilcot Inquiry was tasked with examining the country's involvement in the run-up to the Iraq War, the conflict itself, and the aftermath — a period stretching from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009. The inquiry — "unprecedented in scope," according to Brown — was also tasked with identifying the lessons that could be learnt from the war.

The news of the report's publication date comes a week after Tony Blair, in an interview with CNN, acknowledged that there were "elements of truth" that the Iraq invasion caused the rise of the Islamic State, as well as apologizing for the "fact that the intelligence we received was wrong because, even though [Hussein] had used chemical weapons extensively against his own people, against others, the program in the form that we thought it was did not exist in the way that we thought."

The Dodgy Dossier
Blair is remembered for penning the foreword to the Iraq dossier in September 2002, a briefing paper for Labour members of parliament that was used the following year to justify British involvement in the war. It later garnered the nickname the "Dodgy Dossier," thanks in large part to its infamous assertion that "the Iraqi military are able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so."

The claim became a source of controversy for the BBC, for whom journalist Andrew Gilligan reported allegations the dossier had been deliberately "sexed up" by the Blair government which "probably knew" the 45-minute claim was wrong when it was written into the dossier.

The Hutton Inquiry was launched following the death of weapons expert Dr. David Kelly, who was named as Gilligan's source and committed suicide two days after being aggressively questioned by a parliamentary committee investigating the journalist's allegations.

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Gilligan wrote in 2013, a decade after Kelly's death: "Even now, almost precisely 10 years since David Kelly's last journey, we are still learning just how extraordinary and inexcusable the behavior of our rulers was — both towards him, and in the wider cause, defending the Iraq war, for which he was outed and died."

A subsequent 2004 inquiry led by Lord Butler called into question the validity of the intelligence report on which the 45-minute claim was based, although its report ultimately stated that it "found no evidence of deliberate distortion or of culpable negligence."

In October 2004, the UK foreign secretary at the time, Jack Straw, withdrew the 45-minute claim, stating: "I of course accept that some of the information on which we based our judgments was wrong. But I do not accept, even with hindsight, that we were wrong to act as we did in the circumstances which we faced at the time."

The Run-Up and Beyond
Above and beyond the 45-minute claim, questions over the legality of the war have raged in the UK ever since its denouement. At the time, the British government argued that various United Nations resolutions allowed for the use of force.

But many others have concluded that the war was illegal, including Hans Blix, the United Nations' former chief weapons inspector. "I am of the firm view that it was an illegal war," said Blix during a Chilcot inquiry hearing. "I think the vast majority of international lawyers feel that way."

Former diplomat Carne Ross elaborated in his testimony: "The UN charter states that only the Security Council can authorize the use of force (except in cases of self-defense.) Reviewing these points, it is clear that in terms of the resolutions presented by the UK itself, the subsequent invasion was not authorized by the Security Council and was thus illegal. The clearest evidence of this is the fact that the UK sought an authorizing resolution and failed to get it."

In a 2010 Chilcot inquiry hearing, former Foreign Secretary Straw defended his decision to reject advice from senior legal government officers that said the war was illegal, saying there had been "different views" on the legality, but in the end ministers had to make a decision on whether it was right to take action against Saddam. "I was reluctant but in the event I made my decision and I stand by it," he said.

During the inquiry, Blix outlined how he and his team carried out hundreds of inspections and found no weapons of mass destruction.

The inquiry also heard from Sir John Scarlett, former chairman of the UK's parliament's joint intelligence committee, which was responsible for the "Dodgy Dossier." It was asked of Scarlett whether he should have corrected the misconception that the "chemical or biological weapons" mentioned in the dossier referred to ballistic missiles.

He admitted in his testimony that the dossier should not have referred to "weapons," but to the word "munitions" instead, adding: "There was absolutely no conscious intention to manipulate the language or obfuscate or create a misunderstanding as to what they might refer to."

It is expected that Blair will be heavily criticized by Chilcot's report. Other predicted to attract blame are Scarlett and Straw, alongside the former head of British intelligence agency MI6 Richard Dearlove, former Defense Minister Geoff Hoon, and former Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short. During the inquiry, a senior army figure Admiral Lord Boyce claimed that soldiers did much of the post-war reconstruction, while the international department was "particularly uncooperative."

The Delays
So why has a report failed to materialize, four years after the inquiry completed its hearings? The process has been plagued with delay, causing much frustration for the relatives of the 179 UK troops killed in operations in Iraq.

One major factor is a procedure called the "Maxwellization process" — a practice that dates back to 1969 whereby people criticized in official reports are given the opportunity to respond before publication.

Television network Channel 4 reported last June that around 40 people were part of the process, which has generated much criticism for being allowed to take so long.

Chilcot defended the process last July, saying none of the witnesses were taking an unreasonable amount of time to reply to criticisms and the committee needed time to consider their responses.

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Conservative MP John Baron argued last month there was a practical need for the procedure: "It would be the very worst outcome if, after publication, the report were torn to shreds by legal actions and counter-claim" he said. "Such a result would inevitably cast doubt over all the report's conclusions."

He also highlighted the fact that the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, an inquiry examining the events that occurred on a single day in 1972 involving the British Army, ran between 1998 and 2010: "By contrast, given the wide remit of the Chilcot inquiry — essentially investigating all British involvement in Iraq between 2001 and 2009 and the thousands of people who played a role in these proceedings — it is not surprising that this has turned out to be a bigger job than anticipated."

Maxwellisation is not the only reason the report is taking quite so long. There has been much back and forth between the Chilcot Inquiry and the government regarding the communications between Blair and Bush, and to what extent they should be published. Back in 2011, it was made clear to the inquiry by Sir Gus O'Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary, by that "there was no prospect of reaching agreement that notes from Mr. Blair or records of discussions between the UK Prime Minister and the President of the United States should be disclosed in their entirety, even with redactions."

The inquiry then asked for permission to disclose "quotes or gists" of the communications, which was agreed, and that "the use of direct quotation from the documents should be the minimum necessary to enable the Inquiry to articulate its conclusions."

The decision to release "quotes and gists" as opposed to full disclosure, was branded as a "whitewash" by the mother of a soldier who was killed in Iraq. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood has been accused of obstructing the records, although he has denied this. 

None of this is consolation for those who lost their loved ones. Upon the news of the timetable announced on Thursday, a mother of a British soldier killed in Iraq said it was "another let-down." 

Follow Jenna Corderoy on Twitter: @JennaCorderoy