Fisking Blair’s chapter on Iraq

Our ex-prime minister is still the best Bliar in the business.

I'm knackered and sleepy, hungry from all the Ramadan fasting and -- officially -- on vacation. But I couldn't go to bed without commenting on Tony Blair's new book, A Journey, extracts of which have been published online here.

Much of the instant attention from the chattering classes in the Westminster village has been on the Gordon Brown (GB) chapter, and on Martin Kettle's pre-publication interview with Tony Blair (TB) in the Guardian, in which the latter says he always believed GB would be a "disaster" as prime minister.

But for me, it's the extracts from the Iraq chapter that caught my sleepy eye (and not just because A Journey is being published on the day after the last US combat troops left that war-torn country). TB continues to distort, evade, pretend and mislead on the issue of Iraq. He is the ultimate Bliar -- and so I couldn't help but fisk the available extracts from his Iraq chapter.

I can say that never did I guess the nightmare that unfolded, and that too is part of the responsibility.

Never did you guess? But why did you have to "guess"? Six of the country's top academic experts on Iraq and international security warned TB, at a face-to-face meeting in November 2002, that the consequences of an invasion could be catastrophic.

Cambridge University's George Joffe, one of the six invited to Downing Street, got the impression of "someone with a very shallow mind, who's not interested in issues other than the personalities of the top people, no interest in social forces, political trends, etc". Meanwhile, the Joint Intelligence Committee warned TB in February 2003 that the threat from al-Qaeda "would be heightened by military action against Iraq".

Why should Saddam keep the inspectors out for so long when he had nothing to hide?

TB knows perfectly well that Saddam Hussein did not "keep the inspectors out", and nor did he expel them, as TB claimed in the run-up to war in early 2003. The truth is that the UN weapons inspectors left Iraq in December 1998 on the orders of the chief weapons inspector, Richard Butler, in anticipation of the US/UK air attack on Baghdad.

Jane Arraf's CNN report, filed on 16 December 1998, stated: "This is the second time in a month that Unscom has pulled out in the face of a possible US-led attack. But this time there may be no turning back. Weapons inspectors packed up their personal belongings and loaded up equipment at UN headquarters after a pre-dawn evacuation order. In a matter of hours, they were gone, more than 120 of them headed for a flight to Bahrain."

"Butler ordered his inspectors to evacuate Baghdad," said the Washington Post on 18 December 1998.

While it is true that relations between the Saddam regime and the UN weapons inspectors had already broken down, TB glosses over the fact that the inspection teams had been infiltrated by US and UK intelligence agencies and how, in the words of the former inspector and hawk-turned-dove Scott Ritter, "Inspectors were sent in to carry out sensitive inspections that had nothing to do with disarmament but had everything to do with provoking the Iraqis."

Even when he let them in, why did he obstruct them?

Obstruct them? That wasn't the view of Hans Blix, the top UN weapons inspector in Iraq, or Mohammed ElBaradei, the then head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA. Verifying Iraqi disarmament, said Blix on 7 March 2003, "will not take years, nor weeks, but months". ElBaradei offered a less specific forecast but nonetheless pointed out that "the recently increased level of Iraqi co-operation should enable us in the near future to provide the Security Council with an objective and thorough assessment of Iraq nuclear-related capabilities".

Why bring war upon his country to protect a myth?

Saddam did not "bring war upon his country" -- the US and the UK invaded Iraq, in defiance of international law. And the Iraqi dictator, as we now know, made several desperate, last-ditch attempts to avoid war, including the use of back-channel approaches to (of all people!) Richard Perle.

The caveats entered by Dr Kay were largely overlooked, including his assertion that Saddam was possibly a greater threat than we had known, a remark seen at the time as inexplicable, given the primary finding.

Dr David Kay? TB looks for support from a man who, as the Guardian's Julian Borger once pointed out, was far from impartial: "Before the war, Kay was one of the most fervent supporters of military action."

The second report from Charles Duelfer was not published until September 2004. It received far less attention, yet this was the complete analysis

Yes, and the complete analysis from Duelfer's Iraq Survey Group concluded that, at most, Saddam's Iraq had been engaged in "WMD-related programme activities". Get that, Tone? Not WMDs. Not even WMD programmes. But "WMD-related programme activities", whatever they happen to be. I wonder: can a WMD-related programme activity be activated within 45 minutes of an order to do so?

The constraint became even tougher when revelations from Saddam's son-in-law about his continuing interest in development of WMDs were broadcast to the world in 1996.

TB, like George Bush, trumpeted the alleged "revelations" from Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, in the run-up to war as well (for example, in a speech to the Commons in February 2003). But TB conveniently omits to mention here what Kamal told UN weapons inspectors in 1995, while being debriefed in Jordan (and first reported in Newsweek on 24 February 2003, three weeks before the invasion): "All chemical weapons were destroyed. I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons -- biological, chemical, missiles, nuclear -- were destroyed."

This conclusion on nuclear weapons was actually endorsed by the Butler report of July 2004, though that was written prior to the full ISG report of September 2004. The Butler report concluded . . .

TB chooses to quote from the Butler report selectively. Surprise, surprise! No mention from our former PM of the report's conclusions that "more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear", and that judgements had stretched available intelligence "to the outer limits". No mention of the view, expressed by Lord Butler himself in the House of Lords, in February 2007, that TB was, at the very minimum, "disingenuous" about the Iraqi "threat".

As Saddam came to power in 1979, Iraq was richer than either Portugal or Malaysia. By 2003, 60 per cent of the population was dependent on food aid.

No mention here of the sanctions on Iraq, imposed by the United Nations and enforced by the United States and the United Kingdom. Those sanctions caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, and were described by the former UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Iraq Denis Halliday as a form of "genocide". As even the humanitarian panel of the UN Security Council noted in March 1999: "Even if not all suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors, especially sanctions, the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivations in the absence of prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of the war."

Millions were malnourished, and millions were in exile.

How is that different from the situation produced by TB and GWB? The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq produced, at the height of the conflict, the Middle East's largest refugee crisis since the Palestinian exodus from Israel in 1948. Inside Iraq itself, according to the UN, more than 1.5 million people remain displaced.

One statistic above all tells us what Saddam's Iraq was like. According to the UN, by 2002 the number of deaths of children under the age of five was 130 per 1,000, a figure worse than that for the Congo.

Again, no mention of the impact of UN sanctions.

Before anyone says "Ah, but it was sanctions", it should be remembered that Saddam was free to buy as much food and medicine as he wanted.

This is untrue. As Professor Karol Sikora, then chief of the cancer programme of the World Health Organisation, wrote in the British Medical Journal: "Requested radiotherapy equipment, chemotherapy drugs and analgesics are consistently blocked by United States and British advisers [to the sanctions committee]. There seems to be a rather ludicrous notion that such agents could be converted into chemical or other weapons."

Prof Sikora added: "The saddest thing I saw in Iraq was children dying because there was no chemotherapy and no pain control. It seemed crazy they couldn't have morphine, because for everybody with cancer pain, it is the best drug. When I was there, they had a little bottle of htmlirin pills to go round 200 patients in pain." As Benon Sevan, executive director of the UN Office of the Iraq Programme, said in 2001: "The improvement of the nutritional and health status of the Iraqi people . . . is being seriously affected as a result of [the] excessive number of holds placed on supplies and equipment for water, sanitation and electricity."

In the Kurdish area, despite Saddam and despite sanctions covering them, too, the death rate for children was half that of central and southern Iraq.

Apples and oranges, Tony, apples and oranges. As a Unicef document in August 1999 on the differences in levels of child mortality between the autonomous northern governorates in the Kurdish areas and the rest of Iraq pointed out: ". . . the difference in the current rate cannot be attributed to the differing ways the Oil-for-Food Programme is implemented in the two parts of Iraq . . . We need to look at longer-term trends and factors, including the fact that since 1991 the north has received far more support per capita from the international community than the south and centre of Iraq. Another factor may be that the sanctions themselves have not been able to be so rigorously enforced in the north as the border is more 'porous' than in the south and centre of Iraq." And as Hans von Sponeck, the former UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Iraq, noted in 2001: "The northern part of Iraq, where the Kurds live, is getting a disproportionate amount of oil revenue for the humanitarian programme. Thirteen per cent of the population living in that area is getting 20 per cent of the oil revenues."

The origins of this figure lie in the Lancet report published in October 2004 which purported to be a scientific analysis of deaths in Iraq. The figure they gave -- 600,000 -- led the news and became dominant, repeated as fact.

"Purported to be"? What does that mean? That the Lancet authors were pretending to offer "scientific analysis"? Sorry, are we now supposed to take the word of our former prime minister, a law graduate from Oxford, over the word of a peer-reviewed study produced by world-renowned epidemiologists and published in Britain's most prestigious medical journal?

Later the methodology on which this report was based was extensively challenged; its figures charged with being inaccurate and misleading; and the assessment made comprehensively questioned by other publications.

Eh? Did John Rentoul ghost-write this portion of the chapter? "Extensively challenged"? Here's Lila Giterman writing on the first Lancet report in the Columbia Journalism Review: "I called about ten biostatisticians and mortality experts. Not one of them took issue with the study's methods or its conclusions. If anything, the scientists told me, the authors had been cautious in their estimates."

Ronald Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who worked at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention for many years, called the survey method "tried and true", and added that "this is the best estimate of mortality we have". In a letter to The Age, 27 epidemiologists and health professionals defended the methods of the study, writing that the study's "methodology is sound and its conclusions should be taken seriously". But, best of all, the chief scientific adviser to TB's own Ministry of Defence said the survey's methods were "close to best practice" and that the study design was "robust". Did No 10 not get his memo?

Friends opposed to the war think I'm being obstinate; others, less friendly, think I'm delusional.

No, I just think you're being dishonest, Tony. Seven years on from Iraq, nothing has changed. Off to bed . . .

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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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