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Chilcot: The verdict from the UK's media

The long-awaited inquiry into Iraq war was more damning than anticipated, while Tony Blair insists he did right thing.

Tony Blair

by Rachel Shabi

How upset was he, really? For a brief period, as Tony Blair gave a speech in response to the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war that seemed to be the central question for Britain's commentariat: Blair's voice is breaking, is it genuine? Is he about to cry?

Mercifully, such speculation ended swiftly as the former prime minister's speech switched from accepting responsibility to a lengthy and determined insistence that, in sending the UK to war with Iraq in 2003, he had done the right thing, acted in good faith.

We had been told that it would be critical, but when it finally came, Chilcot's 2.6 million-word inquiry, released seven years after it had been commissioned, was far more damning that many had expected.

The US-led invasion of Iraq and its bloody aftermath has killed up to 600,000 people; left many more injured and forced several million people to flee their homes.

The ill-prepared-for aftermath of that war, hollowing out the country's power bases and infrastructures, dismantling the army, casually but actively promoting sectarianism, was calamitous for a country whose people still continue to pay daily, in blood and in misery, for the careless mistakes of their invaders. 

Unequivocal and scathing

In a half-hour summary speech, Chilcot was unequivocal and scathing: the decision to go to war was avoidable, an option taken before all peaceful alternatives had been exhausted.

READ MORE: Tony Blair is rubbing salt into Iraq's wounds

Chilcot made clear there was no credible justification, that the legal case for war was "far from satisfactory", that there was, contrary to claims made at the time, no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein.

Chilcot made clear there was no credible justification, that the legal case for war was 'far from satisfactory', that there was, contrary to claims made at the time, no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein.
Blair and Britain's intelligence services had exaggerated claims of Saddam's WMD (weapons of mass destruction) stockpile, while the then prime minister had ignored warnings that the war would fuel terrorism and have terrible consequences for Iraq. Chilcot also said that Blair had undermined the UN and that preparations for the aftermath of the war were “wholly inadequate”.

This crushing report was far from the whitewash than many had expected. As the BBC's Middle East editor highlighted in response to claims that this inquiry had simply confirmed what many already knew: Its significance is as a "critique from the heart of the UK establishment, backed by documents".

Against such damning criticism, there were still a few mitigating cries from corners of the British media, notably from commentators that had supported either the 2003 war or Tony Blair as leader of the Labour party.

Still necessary to remove Saddam?

Most of this took the line that whatever happened in Iraq next, it was still necessary to remove Saddam Hussein.

One commentator explained why Blair today is "as right as he ever was"; another, writing in the Telegraph, described the invasion as "morally right".

The same paper's front-page headline on the Chilcot report ran Tony Blair's sorry-not-sorry response: "I'd take the same decision" - he would do the same thing today.

Several other papers put Blair's secret note to then US President George Bush - "I'll be with you, whatever" - on the front pages.

That message, eight months before the war and made public by Chilcot yesterday, made clear that Blair had committed Britain to stand alongside the US over Iraq, before UN weapons inspectors had completed their work in that country. 

What might happen, in the weeks to come, is more of a media self-reflection - an exploration of the mechanisms by which, in the lead up to and during the conflict, so much of a nation's media often becomes in some way a part of the war effort, only to wake up to the professional hangover of falling for manipulation in the aftermath.

For now, even critics of the currently embattled Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn - who opposed the war in 2003 ­- could not fail to note the quiet power of his speech, condemning the war as an "act of military aggression, launched on a false pretext".

Not about being vindicated

He later apologised on behalf of the party, to the people of Iraq, to the families of British army personnel killed in that war and to the British people for being so misled over it.

The Labour leader's humane response to the Chilcot report stood in contrast to that from Prime Minister David Cameron, which seemed to be more of a sort of: "Stuff happens." 

For opponents of the war, back in 2003 as much as now, it is not about being vindicated or being right - for who can find comfort in such things, set against the catastrophe and heartache that was unleashed upon Iraq and the wider Middle East in that reckless invasion. Britain can never undo the horrors inflicted upon the Iraqi people.

But while legal minds mull the potential legal consequences for individuals involved, the Chilcot report should force political and military establishments to look mistakes fully in the eye, internalise them and ensure that such disastrous, unnecessary and avoidable wars do not take place again.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.

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