29 Jan 2010

Iraq inquiry: foresight a bigger problem than hindsight

Channel 4 News international editor Lindsey Hilsum reviews Tony Blair’s evidence to the Iraq inquiry and recalls her own experiences in Iraq as the invasion became inevitable.

Having reported the impact of Tony Blair’s judgements rather than the making of them, watching his evidence to the Chilcot inquiry has raised more questions than it has answered.

Or as Winston Churchill said: “However beautiful the strategy, you should also occasionally look at the results.”

Mr Blair warns against reflecting with the benefit of hindsight, but from what we have heard so far, the problem was foresight.

After 9/11, Mr Blair believed everything had changed, not that Saddam was linked to al-Qaida, but that in a world of mass-scale terrorism, the risk of his retaining WMD was too great.

Unfortunately, the invasion of Iraq strengthened al-Qaida. The British and the Americans, at least in the early years of the civil war in Iraq, described attacks on their troops or the new Iraqi administration, as “terrorism”. Before the invasion there was no such group as al-Qaida In Iraq, which is active to this day. By their own measure, therefore, their actions fuelled what they were trying to prevent.

Similarly, in his testimony, Mr Blair keeps referring to Iran and the threat he believes its nuclear programme now poses. But the invasion of Iraq vastly (and predictably) strengthened Iran.

The previous policy of containment involved balancing the historical enemies, the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein and the Shia Islamic Republic of Iran.

Now Iran wields huge influence in Iraq, providing resources to Britain and America’s enemies, and manipulating the government.

Listening to his evidence on WMD takes me back to 24 September 2003, when I toured two of the facilities referred to in the famous dossier, the Al Qa’a Qa’a state establishment and the Amiryah serum and vaccine institute in Baghdad.

The Iraqis had agreed we could go to anywhere mentioned on the day of publication, so we could not accuse them of hiding the evidence in advance.

At Al Qa’a Qa’a, where the dossier said phosgene was being harvested as a precursor for chemical weapons, we found a broken down chemical plant and a puzzled director, but it was within a weapons complex so we could not say it was no threat. At Amiryah, we found Unicef and WHO vaccines.

I did not conclude that Saddam Hussein was no threat until 12 March 2003 when we went to see a drone the Iraqis had developed, which the Americans had announced was a danger because it had a wing-span of more than seven metres and had been test flown for more than 500km.

It was pathetic, its fuselage made of an old aircraft fuel tank, done up with duct tape, controlled by bicycle gears and with, as one of my colleagues put it, “an engine smaller than a weed whacker”.

Our driver sidled up to me: “This little aeroplane, Lindsey,” he said, unable to disguise his disbelief, “Very big problem for Americans?”

But war, by then, was inevitable.

Tony Blair has referred several times to the Iraq survey report, the definitive weapons inspection carried out after the invasion. But what I still find amazing is that US and Britsh troops did not head for the complexes they believed were such a threat the moment they arrived in country. Al Qa’a Qa’a, among others, was looted in the chaos.