20 Mar 2013

Iraq war 10 years on: what have we learned?

It was the most divisive war of modern times. In our second special report a decade after the Iraq invasion, Channel 4 News asks leading figures what have we learned from it all?

Iraq War anniversary - what have we learned ten years on (picture: Retuers)

It was one of the most controversial military campaigns ever conducted in British history, writes Kunal Dutta. Operation Telic, the mission to join the US in removing Saddam Hussein, began in March 2003 amid mass anti-war protests by millions in cities around the world.

In total, some 178 UK service personnel and one Ministry of Defence civilian died – a figure dwarfed by more than 100,000 Iraqi dead, most of whom were civilians.

Behind that, an assortment of subplots from dodgy dossiers, a lack of WMD, reports of prisoner abuses; all part of an eight year conflict costing Britain in excess of £9bn.

But ten years on what have we learned? Channel 4 News asked leading figures to share their lessons. We want to know yours, too. Tell us using Twitter hashtag #lessonsofiraq

Andrew Gilligan

The former reporter at the centre of the David Kelly affair

“My main lesson was the deep-seated failure of democratic institutions that were supposed to be there to protect us.

“Parliament seemed more fixated with hassling David Kelly than getting to the truth of the dossier. John Scarlett, then head of the intelligence services, became Alastair Campbell’s co-conspirator and intelligence officials allowed themselves to be manipulated.

“Top military and diplomatic sources expressed concerns to journalists off-record but hid their doubts publicly, until long after it was over. Even the judiciary, in Lord Hutton, dropped a clanger.

“The only thing that got to truth more quickly than anything else, in the end, was journalism. It has cemented its place in our democracy.”

Bonnie Greer

American playwright living in Britain

“The lesson is that we have well and truly entered two ages simultaneously: the age of asymmetrical warfare; and the age of the internet. Both are connected and will serve their own check and balance.

“Never again will we do mass invasions, not have presidents on aircraft carriers or lofty statements about freedom spoon fed in the way it was. That’s over forever.”

Jack Straw

The former defence secretary, who spoke to Channel 4 News last week

“The post-military invasion period went very badly wrong. There has been a level of bloodshed which was just terrible. If you look at the situation now, you find is, for example, a majority of Iraqis who say they are optimistic about the future of Iraq.

“The decision to go to war was in my judgement morally right.

“The view that Saddam had all these weapons was a view held across the world all over. When we got into Iraq we found he had got rid of his WMD.

“I’m not going to try and wriggle out of my responsibility of making that decision at the time. I knew that people on both sides would be killed.

“The fact that there was no WMD was a major mistake – but it was a mistake made by the whole international community.”

Colonel Bob Stewart

Former British Army officer and Tory MP

“The one lesson of Iraq is that it never turns out how you think and inevitably when you involve yourself in the Middle East you will get both the blame and a kicking. We should heed those lessons as we look to Syria.

“The trouble is Britain doesn’t learn the lessons of history. Each time an international crisis of that scale comes around, we think things are different this time and we’ll have the ability to change them.

“This appetite for intervention is fuelled primarily by our history of involvement with other countries and an underlying compassion to help others.”

Anthony Seldon

Tony Blair’s biographer and historian

“Iraq has taught us not to enter geopolitical missions unless we have a clear exit strategy. We have learned that nation building is a difficult and sensitive task that needs a lot of political, economic and social thought beforehand. Not afterwards.

“The other lesson is that international goodwill of the sort America received after 9/11 should be valued – and not squandered.

“How we respond to future events such as the growing crisis in Syria will test how far these lessons have been learned. A decade on the question should not be should it have been done, but how could we have done it better?”

Saad Saraf

Head of the Iraqi International Council of Experts

“One lesson I would urge ten years after the invasion is not to let fear of intervention devalue the ultimate importance of freedom. There are teething problems but we are basically on the road to better times.

“People are starting to enjoy their democracy. Much of Baghdad is returning to a new life after Saddam. You can see the emergence of the Iraqi intelligentsia huddling in the teashops and coffeeshops of Baghdad. Businesses such as Mothercare and Zara are opening.

“In my local area in Al-Mansour, four shopping malls are being built and in a race to open first.

“Of course you hear about things like the odd car bombs; but these are minority groups whose existence is more infrequent. They are desperately trying to make statements coinciding with the 10th anniversary – but few are in doubt. The old Baathists and young jihadis have become a fractured movement and largely ousted. Head to the Shia and Kurdish communities in Baghdad and across Iraq and it is completely peaceful.”

Kunal Dutta is a news writer and journalist based in London