If you were in student politics in the 1980s you were handed a lot of leaflets. I remember only one. It was given to me by an Iraqi student, who was also a member of the university Labour Club. It was April 1988, and it had a photograph of dead Kurdish women and children lying in the street in Halabja. They were the victims of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. About 5,000 civilians were killed by chemical weapons dropped from Iraqi jets flying repeated sorties over the Kurdish town of Halabja. The weapons contained a combination of mustard gas, sarin, VX, and other nerve agents. Some victims died immediately; others died slowly in unimaginable agonies. Many more were injured, burnt, or blinded and many babies have been born with birth defects since.
I wonder if the young Iraqi handing out leaflets survived the next two decades, and how he felt when Saddam’s right-hand man in the Halabja massacre Ali Hasan al-Majid was tried by an Iraqi court and executed last week. I imagine that he feels, like so many Iraqis, that his country is a better place, with a more secure future, than if Saddam Hussein and his murdering rapist sons were still in charge.
There aren’t any Iraqis presenting their views at the Iraq Inquiry. None will be there to point to the rising numbers of babies surviving into childhood, or growing personal incomes in Iraq. Chilcot has called protagonists from the British political and administrative classes. Some have exposed their inner turmoil and regret, complete with paperwork to show the extent of their private misgivings. Others have explained why they opposed or resigned over the British military engagement in Iraq. Tony Blair, consistently as at every one of the inquiries dealing with aspects of Iraq, has made the case for removing Saddam Hussein’s regime by force, because it presented a threat to the UK.
Chilcot will be unsatisfactory for most people, because they want it to do impossible things. Outside the QEII Centre are the Stop the War demonstrators. They want to end all UK, US and UN military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan; they don’t mind if that means that theocrats and terrorists take over those countries. Many of the people shouting outside don’t just want to stop the war: they also want to stop capitalism, private ownership of property, and the existence of Israel. They want the Chilcot Inquiry to prove that there was a US-Zionist conspiracy to rush to war to secure oil supplies and boost the profits of US arms manufacturers. They want Blair to be tried and named as a war criminal. They know that Chilcot won’t do what they want, so they are preparing for a unified cry of ‘whitewash’. This, of course, fits into their irreconcilable narrative that there was an international conspiracy to launch a war in Iraq.
Then there are the families of servicemen and women killed or wounded serving in Iraq. Many, but not all, of the relatives of dead soldiers want Chilcot to serve a deeper psychological function as part of their grieving process. As a father of two sons I have no idea how my mental resilience would hold up if one or other were killed whilst serving in the armed forces. I would like to think that I would react with the quiet pride and dignity of bomb disposal expert Olaf Schmid’s widow. I might well, like Reg Keys, fixate my grief and rage onto the prime minister of the time, stand against him in a general election, and invite television cameras to film me standing with a noose around my neck in the pose of a man about to hang himself outside Labour party conference. I have no idea how grief can dement and twist the human mind. Those that blame Tony Blair personally for the death of their soldier sons and daughters, as though he had planted the roadside bombs himself, will never be satisfied by the inquiry. They want Tony Blair to apologise, and to say he was wrong. Chilcot won’t achieve that because Blair won’t do it. Nor can an inquiry do what these poor, tortured families really want: to bring back their loved ones.
A third group want Chilcot to answer definitively questions about the legality of the invasion of Iraq. But from the evidence presented so far, it is obvious that a definitive answer is impossible because lawyers interpret the framework of international law in different ways. The government’s leading lawyer at the time Lord Goldsmith advised the Cabinet that a war would be legal, and they accepted his advice. So did the UK parliament, which voted by 412 to 149 to back military action. Other lawyers thought that it was not legal, for example, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, who resigned from her post at the FCO. Chilcot is not a legal seminar, nor a trial, and it won’t determine the war’s legality one way or the other.
When the Chilcot Inquiry reports, after hours of hearings and mountains of paperwork, I doubt that a single mind will have changed about the Iraq war. Those who opposed it will continue to do so. Those who supported on principle and through conviction will not change their minds. The star attraction Tony Blair has made it clear that he thought there was a new threat based on religious fanaticism after 9/11. He has made it clear that all the intelligence from the agencies of many countries pointed to Saddam Hussein developing the kinds of weapons that he had used in Halabja, and even more deadly ones which could be targeted on other countries including Israel and Cyprus. Blair made the decisions, and has stuck by them. No caveats or private memoranda. I suppose that’s the difference between leaders and followers, between those who shape the histories and those who appear as footnotes. He had no-one to whom he could express his private doubts. He answers only to his conscience, to history and to his God.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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