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Seven Myths About the Iraq War: How BBC Newsnight Failed Journalism on the 10 Year Invasion Anniversary

27/02/2013 10:44 GMT | Updated 28/04/2013 10:12 BST

Abridged from The Cutting Edge

As a participant in the BBC Newsnight special, 'Iraq - 10 Years On', I found myself feeling slightly miffed at the lack of real debate on the crucial issues.

Newsnight presented some deeply questionable narratives of the war and its aftermath as 'fact'; and systematically avoided any serious, factually-grounded criticisms of the war, despite a diverse panel which included people who opposed it.

So what follows is my Newsnight-inspired Iraq War myth-busting exercise, based on what was, and wasn't, discussed on the show.

MYTH 1. Sectarian violence has increased in postwar Iraq because sectarianism has always existed in Iraq, and the removal of Saddam allowed it to erupt

John Simpson, the BBC's World Affairs Editor, argued that while Saddam's regime had clamped down on sectarian divisions, regime change effectively unleashed those previously suppressed divisions and allowed them to worsen.

The reality is that prior to the war, generic sectarian antagonism was unheard of in Iraqi society. Although Saddam's regime was unequivocally sectarian in its own violence against Shi'as and Kurds, Iraqis did not largely identify in sectarian terms, as one Iraqi blogger living in Baghdad noted: "I remember Baghdad before the war- one could live anywhere. We didn't know what our neighbors were- we didn't care. No one asked about religion or sect. No one bothered with what was considered a trivial topic: are you Sunni or Shia?"

In fact, the Bush administration planned from the outset to dominate Iraq by pursuing the de facto ethnic partition of the country into three autonomous, ethnically/religiously discrete cantons for Sunnis, Kurds and Shi'a respectively, as reported by the private US intelligence firm, Stratfor.

Although this specific vision did not come to fruition, the 'divide-and-rule' thinking behind it wasimplemented.

MYTH 2. We went to war in Iraq based on a legitimate parliamentary process, even if lots of people demonstrated against it - most Brits approved the war according to polls.

When an audience member asked why the British government went to war despite the millions who protested against it, Independent columnist John Rentoul argued that the war was an example of democratic process, because the MPs voted for it. Kirsty Wark added that 54% supported the war according to opinion polls at the time.

Not true. In mid-March, before the war, "just 26% of the public was saying in mid-March that they approved of British involvement without a 'smoking gun' and a second UN vote, while 63% disapproved."

MYTH 3: The Iraq War was a colossal cock-up based on bad intel. We didn't really go to war on the basis of a lie, we went to war because our intel was wrong.

All the intelligence available to our security services, including information passed on through the UN weapons inspections process throughout the 1990s, confirmed unequivocally that Saddam had no functioning WMDs of any kind.

This included testimony from defector General Hussein Kamel, head of Iraq's WMD programmes, cited by senior officials as the key witness on the WMD's. What these officials omitted is that Gen. Kamel had confirmed to UN inspectors that Iraq destroyed its entire WMD stockpile in 1991.

MYTH 4: The decision to go to war was based on a legitimate parliamentary process, legal advice from the Attorney General, as well as consultations with the UN.

The decision to go to war was made jointly by prior to any democratic process, behind closed doors, and irrespective of evidence or international law - as confirmed by declassified official documents discussed in my report, Executive Decisions.

A leaked Cabinet Office policy options paper notes the imperative "to first consider what sort of Iraq we want" - namely "a pro-Western regime".

In another document, Peter Ricketts, political director of the Foreign Office, writes to Jack Straw: "To get public and Parliamentary support for military operations, we have to be convincing... 'regime change', does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam. Much better, as you have suggested, to make the objective ending the threat to the international community from Iraqi WMD... This is at once easier to justify in terms of international law."

Indeed, in the notorious Downing Street memo the head of MI6, Richard Dearlove, confirms that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" of regime change, "justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD".

MYTH 5: Even if the WMD issue was not really the issue, we went to war to get rid of a brutal dictator who had killed tens of thousands of people with chemical weapons.

Tony Blair talked about how he wanted to rid the world of a brutal dictator who was a threat to regional peace, stability, and democracy.

But Saddam was sponsored by the CIA and MI6; and his genocidal campaigns against the Kurds and Shi'as were pursued with the support of the US-UK governments, who supplied him hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons - including chemical and biological weapons. As one Reagan administration official put it, "Saddam Hussein is a bastard. But he's our bastard."

The real reason we went to war in 2003 is candidly described in a 2001 report on "energy security" - commissioned by then US vice-president Dick Cheney, which warned that Iraq posed a risk to the security of global energy supplies.

But this wasn't just about big profits for Anglo-American oil conglomerates. The fundamental goal, as investigative journalist Greg Muttitt has documented citing declassified Foreign Office files from 2003 onwards, was stabilising global energy supplies as a whole by ensuring the free flow of Iraqi oil to world markets - benefits to US and UK companies were secondary.

MYTH 6: We didn't plan for the aftermath of the Iraq War because of hubris, incompetence and general stupidity

Toward the end of the show, we heard that officials did not plan for what would happen after the war -a grave, regrettable but unintended mistake.

The reality is that extensive plans for postwar reconstruction were pursued, but they did not consider humanitarian and societal issues of any significance, focusing instead on maintainingthe authoritarian structures of Saddam's brutal regime after his removal, while upgrading Iraq's oil infrastructure to benefit foreign investors .

A series of news reports confirmed how the State Department had set up 17 separate working groups to work out this post-war plan. Iraq would be "governed by a senior US military officer... with a civilian administrator", which would "initially impose martial law", while Iraqis would be relegated to the sidelines as "advisers" to the US administration. The US envisaged "a broad and protracted American role in managing the reconstruction of the country... with a continued role for thousands of US troops there for years to come", in "defence of the country's oil fields".

Myth 7: The number of people who died as a consequence of the war is disputed, and will always be disputed - could be anything from a hundred thousand to over half a million - but who knows?

Kirsty Wark characterised the number of Iraq War civilian casualties as a "disputed" matter with no resolution in sight.

This was disingenuous. The most rigorous epidemiological study of the Iraqi civilian death toll was published in the leading peer-reviewed British medical journal Lancet, and undertaken by John Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. It estimated 655,000 excess Iraqi civilian deaths due to the war, employing standard statistical methods widely used in the scientific community.

According to the BBC itself, the Ministry of Defence's chief scientific adviser described the survey's methods as "close to best practice" and its results "robust" - but BBC Newsnight still seems to want to pretend lower, speculative figures could be valid.

Indeed, Lancet's figures were empirically verified and built on by the British polling agency, Opinion Business Research (ORB), which discovered local reports of four to five times more deaths than those conventionally acknowledged - concluding that the Iraqi civilian death toll since the invasion was 1.2 million.

That figure wasn't even mentioned on Newsnight as a possibility.

Conclusions

Throughout, Newsnight ignored the now well-documented fact that the war was conceived for a set of narrow strategic goals which did not genuinely have the interests of the Iraqi people at heart.

What we should have been discussing on Newsnight is the implications of having an intelligence system that was so easily politicised, such that fraudulent 'intel' was cherry-picked to justify an illegal war. Resultantly, Whitehall was co-opted and manipulated by a narrow political class for a pre-conceived military agenda.

Despite the facts being widely and easily available in the public record, Newsnight's programme on the 10 year anniversary of the war obfuscated them to such an extent that the real, serious questions were largely overlooked.

Ten years on, we need to be thinking about how British democratic institutions were hijacked for a self-serving geopolitical strategy invented by a tiny group of American neoconservative politicians; and how, therefore, we might ensure that appropriate reforms of our political, parliamentary and intelligence processes can prevent such a situation from re-occurring.

Instead, Newsnight's Iraq War special devolved into a banal non-debate, skirting around the real issues, and failing to even acknowledge the critical facts already brought to light by decent US and British journalism.

But then, given all the recent hullabaloo at the BBC, should we be surprised?