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Iraq: The UK's Chilcot Report Asks the Wrong Question

07/07/2016 13:09 | Updated 07 July 2016

The publication of the Chilcot Report into the UK's involvement in the 2003 Iraq war has as its focus the events that led up to the flawed decision over the UK going to war, and to some extent the other side of the equation; the impact of this flawed decision-making on the conduct of the subsequent 'nation-building'.

The report is inevitably UK-centric. Its conclusions relate to the UK government's aims and decision-making processes, (somewhat muted in impact since parliament's two votes on the UK going to war in Syria), and to the UK's preparedness in pursuit of the aims of the war.

The UK media on the other hand have focused on the role of the then UK Prime Minister Blair, his dealings with the US authorities, and the extent to which his relationship with his own government was characterised by mendacity.

The first regional government I appointed, in Basra, lasted almost intact until the Governorate elections, and some of my appointees took national roles. One of which, Judge Wael Abdul Latif, told the Guardian earlier this week; "Basra was the first province in Iraq to organise local elections. The British worked well, they met with locals sheikhs and attended their tribal councils. When I asked their military for a bridge, they built it in one month."

However, the seeds were sown in 2003 and 2004 for the carnage that followed, and which continues today.

The most well-publicised blunders, often attributed to occupation governor and famed Neo-Con, Jerry Bremer, were the 'sacking' of the Iraqi army, leaving them with no role or income; the banning of Ba'athists from the top four tiers of government, removing valuable experts many of whom had joined just to get a job; and the lack of planning for multiple insurgencies, believing instead that the US would be welcomed and be able to start with a blank sheet of paper to remake Iraq in America's image.

However, attempts were made to recover from these blunders and some decisions were reversed. Whilst probably too late, such corrections were doomed anyway because of more 'hidden' blunders which were much more fatal to recovery.

First, the personnel. In Baghdad and elsewhere, experts being sent to sort out problems in 2003 and 2004 were being politically vetted. In some areas there was a strict 'Neo-Cons only' policy. This was catastrophic, given that in US terms, most public international law experts and experienced senior international development specialists were Democrats or 'liberal' Republicans. Some senior folks were straight out of college, and many more had never been outside the US before. Most never left their bases. It wasn't so much that they knew nothing about Iraq, it was that they thought they didn't need to.

Second, the law. To establish rule of law you need ... rules (ie the legal system). Under the Laws of Occupation the existing body of law and legal processes continue, except where the occupier decrees otherwise. To get the system up and running quickly, such decrees need to dovetail in with the existing legal framework, and be specific about which laws and parts of laws were being replaced.

The Coalition in Baghdad however issued sweeping decrees sometimes glibly, without even bothering to find the existing laws. A complete set of relevant laws came into my hands on discs. Coalition officials, including British, had thus no interest. The legal system and rule of law was doomed to failure by not knowing what the law to be enforced actually was.

Third, the institutions. When protestors gathered in Nasiriyah to protest lack of clean water, it was the provincial council (governorate) they marched to. Without the Ba'sathist dictatorship making unilateral decisions, they expected a reversion to the highly devolved Iraqi constitutional set up, until then only tokenistically adhered to.

This system was undermined and then destroyed from three directions; whilst there were billions of dollars sloshing around, only a negligible amount was sent to the newly-appointed Provincial/Governorate Councils... the system became heavily centralised (and corrupt) in Baghdad; the Coalition favoured groups of 'consultants' running projects which bypassed non-national institutions and created an 'overlay' of foreigner-run bodies across Iraq often leaving mega-projects unfinished as money 'disappeared'; much Baghdad money was channelled via local branches of central government ministries, who at the local level were controlled either by Ba'athist thugs who had sidestepped the cull, or by representatives of violent militias or murderous Saddam-backed tribes, taking commissions for projects.

Finally, political timetables were vacillating, in order to try and favour Washington-based diaspora parties. Elections were set at laughably short timetables, and then switched to a couple of years later when it became clear diaspora-based parties were as yet unpopular. They never became popular. Given good educational levels, elections should have been local first, provincial second and national third, in order to bring in 'neutrals'. But by the time of national elections, militias had popularly expanded to protect neighbourhoods, sectarian conflict had arisen in the vacuum, and foreign powers had acquired their client groups. More importantly, Western policy was divided by pursuing an anti-Ba'athist strategy, and pursuing a 'War of Terror' agenda, at the same time.

In the end, what Western policy objective was achieved here ?

Some colleagues in Washington still claim Western aims were at least partially met, including former PM Blair. They claim that an anti-Western dictator was deposed, and an opponent of Israel and Western interests has been replaced by a weak, failed state. What's more, the same group claims that aims would have been wholly achieved if the military had received more resources and better equipment; some complaining that the 'whack-a-mole' approach to insurgency needed another 400,000 troops.

However, if the underlying US aim really was to create a failed state and 'neutralise' Iraq as a source of potential resistance to US policy in the Mid East, then, yes, the Iraq invasion in 2003 was successful.

The question which Chilcot doesn't ask, is 'what was the foreign policy aim, and was it the right one... and could better aims have been achieved without a war ?'

To me the evidence was always clear that Saddam was removable without war. Moreover, the aims of better relations with Mid East states, countering Saudi 'oil-based-negotiating power', and realigning Iranian relations, were all possible without such carnage and blowback.

We must ask if there is a better way of pursuing Western aims than creating failed states in which millions of people die.

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