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British inquiry into Iraq war finds failure at multiple levels

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair meets soldiers in December 2005 at Shaibah logistics base in Basra, Iraq. Thirteen years after British troops marched into Iraq and seven years after they left a country that's still mired in violence, a mammoth official report addresses the lingering question: What went wrong? [Associated Press]
Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair meets soldiers in December 2005 at Shaibah logistics base in Basra, Iraq. Thirteen years after British troops marched into Iraq and seven years after they left a country that's still mired in violence, a mammoth official report addresses the lingering question: What went wrong? [Associated Press]
Published Jul. 6, 2016

LONDON — A sweeping, multiyear inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq war delivered a scathing assessment Wednesday, with investigators blaming the country's political, military and intelligence leadership for a conflict that could have been avoided and that ended "a very long way from success."

The findings by a team of British investigators are the culmination of seven years of work in which they were given nearly unfettered access to British documents and witnesses.

The latest: Britain's inquiry into its role in the Iraq war

Their report spans a breathtaking 2.6 million words — five times longer than War and Peace — and addresses nearly every facet of Britain's decision to jump into the war alongside its American allies in 2003, as well as Britain's role in the conflict for the following six years.

With war in Iraq still raging today, the inquiry casts the blame widely for a conflict that cost the lives of 179 British troops and, at the time of the British withdrawal in 2009, at least 150,000 Iraqis.

In exacting detail, the report lays out a series of failures and misjudgments in a war initially sold to the public on both sides of the Atlantic as a vital intervention to rid Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were ever found.

The report describes British intelligence painting a flawed picture of Iraqi military capacity, with agencies never considering that the weapons of mass destruction may not exist.

In making their case to the public, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and other British officials described the intelligence case against Saddam "with a certainty that was not justified." In their private deliberations, they ignored warnings that the invasion of Iraq could be a boon to Islamist extremists.

The British relied almost exclusively on their American counterparts for the postwar planning, then failed to deliver the manpower and resources needed to make good on promises to turn Iraq into a functioning, stable democracy.

In a statement delivered Wednesday in London, the report's lead author, retired civil servant John Chilcot, said Blair had taken the country to war "before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort."

The report was commissioned by Blair's predecessor, Gordon Brown, and was originally expected to take a year to complete. Instead, it took seven amid persistent delays that Chilcot has said reflected his own underestimation of the scale of the challenge involved with assessing Britain's first invasion and full-scale occupation of a sovereign state since World War II.

Although the report is sharply critical, it is unclear if it will satisfy the war's toughest critics, including those in Britain who have called for war crimes charges to be brought against Blair.

The leader of Britain's own Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has suggested he could support such charges, and members of Parliament have already floated the idea of formally censuring Blair.

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But the report takes a pass on the issue of Blair's legal culpability. Chilcot said Thursday that the question of whether the war was legal was beyond the scope of his inquiry and could "only be resolved by a properly constituted and internationally recognized court."

Blair, who has defended his decisionmaking on Iraq, was expected to address the report's findings later Wednesday. The report was also expected to be debated in Parliament Wednesday afternoon, when the country's outgoing leader, David Cameron, appears for the weekly Prime Minister's Questions.

Wednesday's report lands as Britain continues to reckon with the aftermath of its June 23 vote to exit the European Union, an outcome that prompted Cameron's resignation and that has spawned a mutiny against Corbyn from within his own ranks.

The report does not have a direct bearing on the country's current political chaos.

But it is likely to revive for many Britons memories of a rush to war that was supported at the time by a majority of the country's Parliament and public, but that has come to be seen as a disastrous failure and that has come to epitomize betrayal by the nation's political class.

That loss of faith was exploited last month by campaigners arguing for a British exit from the European Union. "Leave" politicians dismissed the consensus of experts who argued against the departure, calling it an establishment-organized conspiracy on par with the government's "sexed up" case for war in Iraq. Cynically minded voters appeared to agree.

At 2.6 million words, the report clocks in at three times the length of the complete works of William Shakespeare, or five times that of Tolstoy's War and Peace. It includes memos that Blair sent to then-President George W. Bush — though not the replies.

Many senior British officials have previously sought to blame Washington for the rush to invade Iraq in the spring of 2003, and the report offers ample evidence that Britain at several critical junctures yielded to the judgment of its more powerful ally - with disastrous consequences.

Although the United States led the war effort, there has been no comparably ambitious fact-finding mission addressing U.S. decision-making.

Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said that even if the report doesn't change minds about the war, it may harden existing attitudes, including cynicism toward public officials and a reluctance to endorse military action overseas.

That reluctance has already shaped Britain's approach to the war in Syria. Parliament opted out of a plan to bomb the forces of President Bashar Assad in 2013 and later delayed getting involved in a U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State. Both decisions were heavily influenced by the country's experiences in Iraq.

The Chilcot findings, Kinninmont said, could help to "ensure that there is a toxic political environment for the next prime minister to take the country to war, just as there was for this one."

U.S. military ties with Britain are sheltered from Brexit storm, officials say.

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