Did the head of MI6 mislead the Iraq inquiry?

He is wrong to claim that no one anticipated the violence

The MI6 boss, Sir John Sawers -- he of Speedos fame -- gave evidence to the Iraq inquiry yesterday. But did Sir John, wittingly or unwittingly, mislead Chilcot and co?

Here's what he said (courtesy of the BBC website):

"Very few observers actually highlighted the scale of the violence that we could face. I think about the only person in my recollection who got it right was President Mubarak who warned of unleashing 100 Bin Ladens."

He said undefeated elements of the Ba'athist regime combined with international terrorists and Iran-backed "Shia extremists" had created an "onslaught of violence that was not thought through by any observer".

Sir John said: "I think frankly, had we known the scale of violence, it might well have led to second thoughts about the entire project and we could certainly have mitigated some aspects of it had we had a clearer appreciation of it in advance."

But he said it was not "reasonable" to assume the violence should have been predicted, as it was an "unprecedented scenario".

So, according to the head of MI6 -- who also happens to be a former foreign affairs adviser to Tony Blair -- it was not "reasonable" to assume that the violence should have been foreseen, and only President Mubarak of Egypt predicted the manner in which the invasion of Iraq would exacerbate the threat of al-Qaeda-related terrorism, inside and outside Iraq.

Is he lying, suffering from amnesia or just plain ignorant? It must be one of the three, because I can assure Sir John that countless intelligence reports, terrorism experts, diplomats, politicians and pundits, at home and abroad, warned that invading Iraq wouldn't be the "cakewalk" predicted by the neocons, and that it would only radicalise Muslims across the globe, destabilise the country and the region, and provide new opportunities for jihadists to attack western troops on a Muslim battlefield.

Do you want a few examples?

1) Here's the American Academy of Arts, in its report War With Iraq: Costs, Consequences, and Alternatives, published in 2002:

Another concern is that American occupation forces in Iraq, perhaps for a protracted period of time, will be vulnerable to the violence and instability that could ensue once Saddam's regime has collapsed . . . Considerable recent experience, from US Marines bombed in Lebanon to US military personnel murdered in Kuwait, suggests that US forces in dangerous circumstances are prone to be victimised by terrorist attacks.

2) Here's Daniel Benjamin, who is currently Barack Obama's co-ordinator for counter-terrorism, writing in the Washington Post in October 2002:

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates would find American forces in a post-Hussein Iraq to be an irresistible target . . . Those who today blow up French tankers off Yemen or bars in Bali will soon be picking off GIs in Basra.

3) Here's the former CIA official Paul Pillar's view, as reported in the Washington Post in 2006:

Pillar describes for the first time that the intelligence community did assessments before the invasion that, he wrote, indicated a postwar Iraq "would not provide fertile ground for democracy" and would need "a Marshall Plan-type effort" to restore its economy despite its oil revenue. It also foresaw Sunnis and Shiites fighting for power.

Pillar wrote that the intelligence community "anticipated that a foreign occupying force would itself be the target of resentment and attacks -- including guerrilla warfare -- unless it established security and put Iraq on the road to prosperity in the first few weeks or months after the fall of Saddam".

In an interview, Pillar said the pre-war assessments "were not crystal-balling, but in them we were laying out the challenges that would face us depending on decisions that were made".

4) Here's an account in the Independent of how six of Britain's leading experts on Iraq and the Middle East briefed Tony Blair on the potentially dangerous consequences of invading Iraq, back in 2002, in Downing Street:

Over the next hour and a half the experts sought to take Mr Blair and his senior colleagues through a number of possible post-invasion scenarios, ranging from simply replacing Saddam with another dictator, though one sympathetic to the west, to a messy slide into civil war and fragmentation of the country along ethnic, religious and tribal lines.

5) Here's a poster and a message devised by the anti-war lefties over at tompaine.com in late 2002.

7) Here's the US Army War College, the military's own think tank, reporting on "reconstructing Iraq" in February 2003. It reads, in the words of Jay Bookman, "like an after-the-fact autopsy":

* "Ethnic, tribal and religious schisms could produce civil war or fracture the state after Saddam is deposed."

* " . . . a small number of terrorists could reasonably choose to attack US forces in the hope that they can incite an action-reaction cycle that will enhance their cause and increase their numbers."

* "This ongoing media attention to suicide bombing suggests that any future Iraqi terrorist leaders could have this tactic at the forefront of their minds."

* "After the first year, the possibility of a serious uprising may increase, should severe disillusionment set in and Iraqis begin to draw parallels between US actions and historical examples of western imperialism."

* "Even the most scrupulous effort at fairness can alienate various tribes and ethnicities from the occupation forces and cause them to respond to occupation policies as a group. This discontent could fuel mass action or even an uprising."

So Sir John Sawers is wrong -- not that the establishment worthies on the Chilcot inquiry panel seem to have noticed. (By the way, isn't it time they hired a proper QC to help them out with their feeble questioning?)

It's difficult to disagree with the verdict of Professor George Joffe, one of the "experts" called in to see Blair in 2002: "What has happened in Iraq was predictable and was predicted . . ."


Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.