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Excerpt: "Blair called a press conference after the Chilcot report concluded that he had deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by the Iraqi regime as he sought to make the case for military action to MPs and the public in the buildup to the invasion."

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. (photo: Sky News)
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. (photo: Sky News)

Chilcot Report Delivers a Devastating Critique of Tony Blair's Decision to Go to War in Iraq

By Anushka Asthana and Heather Stewart, Guardian UK

06 July 16


Blair responds to Iraq war report - which says former PM disregarded warnings of risks as he built case for military action

ony Blair has rejected the Chilcot inquiry’s criticisms of his decision to lead Britain to war in Iraq in 2003, but expressed “sorrow, regret and apology” for some mistakes he made in planning the conflict.

The former prime minister called a press conference to respond to the report, starting with an emotional statement that he accepted “full responsibility without exception or excuse” for the consequences of the war.

But, by the end, Blair had delivered a defiant justification of his reasons for taking the UK to war, and rejected most of the criticisms contained in the report, authored by Sir John Chilcot.

He began by describing the choice to join the US in military action as the “hardest, most momentous, most agonising decision” of his life.

Blair said he had wanted to set the Iraqi people free and secure them from the “evil” of Saddam Hussein, but instead they had become victims of sectarian violence.

“For all of this, I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you can ever know or believe,” he said, in a speech in which his voice cracked with emotion.

The Labour politician went on to repeat that he apologised for the failures in planning the war and its aftermath, but was clear that he still believes the decision to remove Saddam was correct. Iraq could be in a worse state than Syria is now if the regime had not been stopped, he suggested.

“I did it because I thought it was right,” Blair said.

Pressed on what he was apologising for, the former prime minister named three areas where he would have done things differently: presenting the cabinet with an “option paper”; pressing the US to have better planning in place for the aftermath; and sharing the advice of the attorney general to senior colleagues.

Following the report, some MPs said they believe he lied to parliament, while Labour frontbencher Paul Flynn and Green MP Caroline Lucas suggested he should face prosecution.

But Blair insisted: “I did not mislead this country. I made the decision in good faith and I believe it is better we took that decision. I acknowledge the mistakes and accept responsibility for them.

“What I cannot and will not do is say we took the wrong decision ... As this report makes clear, there were no lies, there was no deceit.”

Responding to the criticism that he had not exhausted all the options before sending in troops, Blair insisted that there was no “rush to war”, and asked people to put themselves in his shoes.

He said there had appeared to be evidence mounting on weapons of mass destruction; fears of a terrorist attack were growing; and he felt he had a duty to protect the country.

He was increasingly critical of the Chilcot report as the press conference progressed, repeating several times that it said he was wrong to go to war without examining the alternatives.

“There are real lessons of political and military strategy, but I don’t see where these are in this report,” he said.

Stressing the toll the decision had taken on him personally, Blair said he made the choice to put British troops in Iraq with the “heaviest of hearts”, and that he now thinks about it everyday. This was the reason he chose to work on the Middle East peace process after leaving his role as prime minister, he said.

It came after his former chief adviser, Alastair Campbell, said the issue would haunt Blair until his death.

“He will, for the rest of his days, think about that; it weighs heavily on him and all who worked with him,” Campbell said, adding that it was the responsibility of a leader ultimately to make decisions, and that this was Blair’s most difficult one.

Blair called the press conference after the Chilcot report concluded that he had deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by the Iraqi regime as he sought to make the case for military action to MPs and the public in the buildup to the invasion.

In a forensic account of the way Blair and his ministers built the case for military action, Chilcot found that Blair disregarded warnings about the potential consequences of military action and relied too heavily on his own beliefs, rather than the more nuanced judgments of the intelligence services.

A memo published by Chilcot also revealed that Blair had written to the US president, George W Bush, eight months before the 2003 invasion, promising him: “I will be with you, whatever.”

Blair claimed at the press conference that this did not mean he had committed to war at this point. “It’s not a blank cheque, and it wasn’t taken as that,” he said.

He also said he strongly rejected the idea that soldiers had died unnecessarily. “I will never agree that people made their sacrifice in vain,” he said.

“I know some of the families cannot and do not accept that this is so; I know that there are those that can never forget or forgive me for taking this decision and think I did it dishonestly,” he said.

Chilcot identified two separate, key occasions in the buildup to the conflict, against the background of mass protests on the streets of London by the Stop the War Coalition, when Blair appeared to have overplayed the threat from Iraq and underplayed the risks of invasion.

“In the House of Commons on 24 September 2002, Mr Blair presented Iraq’s past, current and future capabilities as evidence of the severity of the potential threat from Iraq’s WMDs [weapons of mass destruction]. He said that, at some point in the future, that threat would become a reality,” Chilcot says.

But Chilcot argues instead: “The judgments about Iraq’s capabilities in that statement, and in the dossier published the same day, were presented with a certainty that was not justified.”

The inquiry finds that the report, which subsequently became notorious as the “dodgy dossier”, was deliberately aimed at maximising the perceived threat from Iraq.

The foreword, in which the then prime minister said he believed intelligence “established beyond doubt” that Saddam was continuing to produce chemical and biological weapons, and hoped to produce nuclear weapons, was “grounded in what Mr Blair believed, rather than in the judgments which the joint intelligence committee had actually reached in its assessment of the intelligence”, Chilcot finds.

Separately, Chilcot contrasted the powerful language used by Blair in the House of Commons on 18 March 2003, when he was making the case for military action to sceptical MPs, with the more nuanced picture presented by intelligence at the time.

Blair warned about the possibility of WMDs falling into the hands of terrorist groups, which he said posed “a real and present danger to Britain and its national security”.

But Chilcot points out that the UK’s intelligence assessment was that:

  • Iran, North Korea and Libya were considered greater threats in terms of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons proliferation.
  • The joint intelligence committee believed it would take Iraq five years, after the lifting of sanctions, to produce enough fissile material for a weapon.
  • There was no evidence that Iraq had tried to acquire fissile material and other components or – were it able to do so – that it had the technical capabilities to turn these materials into a usable weapon.
  • Saddam’s regime was “not judged likely” to share its weapons or knowhow with terrorist groups.

In his statement after the publication of the report on Wednesday, Chilcot said that, at the time of his statement to the Commons: “Mr Blair had been warned that military action would increase the threat from al-Qaida to the UK and to UK interests. He had also been warned that an invasion might lead to Iraq’s weapons and capabilities being transferred into the hands of terrorists.”

The report also suggests that the Blair government’s approach to making the case for war – including the “dodgy dossier” – undermined future public debate.

“The widespread perception that the September 2002 dossier overstated the firmness of the evidence about Iraq’s capabilities and intentions in order to influence opinion and ‘make the case’ for action to disarm Iraq has produced a damaging legacy, including undermining trust and confidence in government statements, particularly those that rely on intelligence that cannot be independently verified,” the report says.

Campbell was widely blamed at the time for “sexing up” the claims in the dossier, but he barely merits a mention in the report’s executive summary, which focuses squarely on Blair’s key role in taking Britain to war in the Middle East.

Chilcot finds that Campbell largely left the task of writing the dossier to Sir John Scarlett, then chairman of the joint intelligence committee, and others – although Campbell did chair a September 2002 meeting at which the need for a “substantial rewrite” was agreed – and later gave a series of comments on drafts, including one urging Scarlett to “cut the rhetoric”.

Campbell’s role in shaping the government’s public statements about the case for going to war is set out clearly in the report. He argued over the Christmas break in 2002, for example, that the UK had to “communicate better the threat and relevance to the UK”.

The UK position “should be that the issue of Iraq/WMD has to be addressed, we worked hard to get [the] UN route … and we’re working hard to make that route work. But Saddam has to understand this is his last chance, and in the meantime we carry on military preparations”.

Setting out the lessons that future governments should take from the dossier episode, Chilcot emphasised “the need for vigilance to avoid unwittingly crossing the line from supposition to certainty” and “the need to be scrupulous in discriminating between facts and knowledge on the one hand and opinion, judgment and belief on the other”.

As well as questioning the basis for many of Blair’s public statements about the threat posed by Iraq at the time, Chilcot also underlines a series of failings in the style of government practised behind the scenes, criticised at the time as “sofa government”, which he says failed to provide sufficient challenge to decisions made by a select inner circle.

The inquiry identifies 11 separate “decision points” in the buildup to the conflict that could have benefited from “collective discussion” in a cabinet sub-committee, with advice from civil servants.

It also criticises Blair for failing to consult more widely within the government about his promise to Bush – in a “long note” of September 2002 – that: “I will be with you, whatever.”

The note was seen only by No 10 officials before it was sent, and was shared afterwards with the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, but not with the then defence secretary, Geoff Hoon.

“While the note was marked ‘personal’ (to signal that it should have a restricted circulation), it represented an extensive statement of the UK government’s position by the prime minister to the president of the US. The foreign and defence secretaries should certainly have been given an opportunity to comment on the draft in advance,” it says. your social media marketing partner
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