A family house lies in ruins in the Iraqi city of Ramadi in March, weeks after the city was retaken from Isis. Iraq remains a politically unstable and violence-prone land. Photo / AP
’s Chilcot Inquiry will finally be released on July 6. To say it’s highly anticipated would be an understatement.
The inquiry, named after its chairman, Sir John Chilcot, was set up in 2009 to investigate the country’s role in the Iraq War.
Although the inquiry began seven years ago and last held public hearings in 2011, the report’s release has been repeatedly delayed in large part because of disagreements about what classified information can be released.
In fairness, it certainly sounds as if it will be comprehensive. In Chilcot’s letter to Prime Minister David Cameron announcing the publication date, he reveals that it ran to 2.6 million words. For reference, that’s more than twice the words in the entire Harry Potter series and three times the number of words in the King JamesBible.
But that fact is unlikely to calm critics, as the Iraq War holds an especially controversial place in modern British history – perhaps even more than it does in the United States. And many wonder whether the US$15 million ($22 million) spent on the inquiry will really result in any concrete action.
How Britain sees the Iraq War
Britain was the chief US ally in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a fact which later earned Prime Minister Tony Blair the nickname of “Bush’s poodle”. It had a high cost for Britain: 179 service personnel died from the conflict between 2003 and 2011, and many more were wounded. In recent years, there has appeared to be a growing consensus in Britain that the war was wrong. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, has stated that he wants to apologise to the “Iraqi people for the suffering we have helped cause” if he is elected prime minister. He’s even suggested that Blair could face trial for the “illegal” war.
That’s a bold statement, but many appear to support Corbyn’s views on the matter. In one poll from 2013, 53 percent of those polled thought that the war had been wrong, while just 27 per cent thought that the war was right. Forty-eight per cent believed that Blair had deliberately misled the British public about weapons of mass destruction, and 22 per cent believe that the former prime minister should be tried as a war criminal. (Other polls do seem to show that many Brits exaggerate the scale of the opposition to the war at the time, to be fair.)
The lengthy delays for the release of the Chilcot Inquiry have further added to the atmosphere of suspicion and recrimination about the Iraq War. But right now it’s hard to say whether the inquiry’s long-awaited release will help end the controversy surrounding Britain’s involvement – or just add to it further.
The Iraq Inquiry
While there had been British probes into the Iraq War before, the Chilcot Inquiry, officially known as the Iraq Inquiry, was designed to be the most wide-ranging official review of the British involvement in the Iraq War. Chilcot was tasked with leading a five-member panel that would scrutinise events between 2001 and 2009 with the aim of identifying “lessons that should be learned” from the war.
After some initial plans to keep the inquiry closed, Chilcot announced that the inquiry would be conducted in public “wherever possible”. The inquiry’s panel was also granted the ability to call any British citizen to give evidence, though foreign nationals could not be compelled to do so. Chilcot himself said that although the inquiry was not a trial and could not apportion blame, the panel would “not shy away from making criticism”.
Public hearings were held between November 2009 and February 2011. Witnesses included intelligence officials, diplomats, military officers and politicians. Blair, who had resigned as prime minister in 2007, was actually brought in to testify twice (despite the shouts of “you are a murderer” outside, he was remarkably defiant, telling the inquiry that he had “no regrets” about removing Saddam Hussein). In total, more than 150 witnesses were called and 150,000 documents reviewed, at a total cost of around US$15 million.
Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of Britain’s Labour Party. Photo / AP
In 2009, when the inquiry was launched, it was widely expected that its results would be released in 2011 or 2012. They were not. One obvious problem is that producing a 2.6 million-word document is difficult and few seem to have anticipated just how much work was required of the inquiry at the outset – according to the Times, the first draft was said to be full of errors. Another unfortunate and unforeseen problem was the death of Sir Martin Gilbert, a historian who served on the panel, in 2015.
However, perhaps the biggest factor is that there has been a long battle with the Government about what information should be declassified and published alongside the report. There’s been plenty of back and forth over the details, providing ample fodder for conspiracy theories. Perhaps most infamous are the private conversations between Blair and Bush that took place in the run-up to the war that may suggest they prepared for it earlier than they have let on publicly.
Another contributing factor is that witnesses and individuals mentioned within the report were allowed to confidentially respond to the inquiry. Given the sheer length of the report and the number of people involved, this has not been a quick process. Chilcot himself has defended the process, saying it is “essential” to “ensure that conclusions drawn by the Inquiry are robust and that any criticism included in the final report is soundly based, fair and reasonable”.
Security officials have checked over the final draft of the report already, but they have not redacted any information inside.
Given the already low opinion of the Iraq War within Britain, it’s hard to imagine how the final report could make things worse. Even so, the Government does appear to be taking no chances: This week’s announcement of the release and the planned July 6 release both appear to have been chosen specifically to avoid major British votes. Blair, who has already seen any criticism of himself within the report, has even changed his tune a little, apologising for “mistakes in planning” last year.
Despite the lengthy time taken for the report to come out, it may well have some lessons for today. It’s suspected that the report may well take the view that the invasion of Iraq helped to radicalise Muslims, which in turn could be said to have led to the creation of Isis (Islamic State). And the impact may not be limited to Britain: Two recent profiles have shown that the Iraq War was key to the thinking of Barack Obama’s Administration, and it’s looking likely to be an issue in the 2016 US presidential race.
At the end of the day, the report is designed to be both comprehensive and fair to those involved – which is why it took so long and cost so much.