Hans Blix at the Iraq inquiry

UN weapons inspector makes clear that 2003 invasion took place despite lack of evidence and increase

The Iraq war was "illegal" and the idea that military action merely upheld UN Security Council resolutions was "absurd", the UN weapons inspector Hans Blix told the Chilcot inquiry yesterday afternoon.

Asked what he thought would have happened, had the March 2003 invasion not taken place, Blix said he would have completed the inspections and introduced proper monitoring of Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capabilities. When pressed, he said that although he thought a diplomatic route could have been backed up by military threat, he doubted it would have involved the deployment of 250,000 men, and said the military pressure could have ensured that the inspections procedure was completed.

His own position on whether Iraq possessed WMDs at the time is rather more complex than is often thought: at the time of the "dodgy dossier" in September 2002, he said he personally expected the presence of weapons, but could not say so in his official capacity as an evidence-gatherer for the UN. He did also say at the time that he thought the dossier "plausible".

However, he changed his view in early 2003 when a scathing report produced greater Iraqi co-operation, with offers to excavate materials from the 1991 war and people involved in armament at that time offering to travel abroad for interviews. Blix says he communicated the change in his opinions to Tony Blair. He also insisted that his team was never denied access to sites, and that it was "not really" greeted by resistance or violence. If this had been the case, he said, he would have complained to the Security Council.

Despite this trend of increased co-operation throughtout the early part of 2003, Blix said he felt he could date the change in British attitude to 10 March 2003, shortly after he submitted a "working document" to the UN that Jack Straw described as "sensational", even though Blix himself felt that it provided very little new information.

Blix maintained that reports that Blair tried to get him to change his mind on the presence of WMDs in order to placate the US were false.

He felt that once his team began reporting back that no evidence had been found at any sites, the US and UK should have changed their policy -- that, he feels, is the main lesson that should be drawn from the situation. His only regret, he says, is the "harsh tones" he used in the January document, which consituted a warning to Iraq to improve co-operation, which it then did.

The issue of co-operation was the real revelation from Blix's evidence yesterday. He made it clear that the US and UK were moving towards military options despite an increased level of co-operation from the Iraqis and a lack of evidence found by the inspectors.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.