Baghdad burns while London spins

The real action is in Baghdad, not at the Hutton inquiry in London. It is there that the case made for the war in Iraq crumbles by the day. The US and British invasion, far from removing a source of danger to the world in general and the Middle East in particular, has created a new zone of instability, as graphically illustrated by the bombing of the UN building in Baghdad. Terrorism, far from being weakened, has been strengthened. Before the invasion, Iraq was just a murderously nasty state; now it is a failed state, which struggles to provide electricity, drinking water, sanitation, crime protection and, above all, security. The US has created in Iraq precisely the conditions that it once tried to prevent by supporting dictators like Saddam. The analogy, as Tim Lambon suggests (page 14), is not so much with Vietnam as with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. According to intelligence reports, Saudi militants are streaming into Iraq just as they did into Afghanistan two decades ago. All this is more or less exactly what critics of the war predicted. And if Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction immediately before the war, as the invaders insisted he did, we must wonder what is supposed to have happened to them now. If they exist, the chances of them falling into the hands of terrorists who are likely to use them are now infinitely greater. Contrary to the belief widespread in America, al-Qaeda had no significant presence in Iraq before the invasion. It does now.

Yet at the Hutton inquiry, Downing Street officials have the demeanour of men who have done nothing wrong (see Nick Cohen, page 6). How can this be so? The answer - and this is Alastair Campbell's finest hour, perhaps his last and greatest service to his master - is that they have managed to focus the minds of the British political and media classes on to a single, extraordinarily narrow issue. This is the allegation, broadcast by Andrew Gilligan in an interview with John Humphrys on the Today programme at 06.07 on 29 May (and presumably heard by a few early-rising cows and insomniac cockerels), that when the government published the statement that Saddam could launch deadly weapons within 45 minutes, it "probably" (Mr Gilligan's word) knew it to be wrong. In later interviews that day, Mr Gilligan said merely that the government "knew that claim was questionable". Likewise, in later interviews, he gave his source as "a British official who was involved in the preparation of the dossier", instead of somebody who was described at 06.07 as "in charge of it". In other words, Mr Gilligan was careless at 06.07, more precise later. On the more important issue, that many intelligence officials had serious reservations about the dossier, there is now a wealth of documentation, including a memo from an unnamed man who described himself as "the most senior and experienced intelligence community official working on WMD". If Downing Street didn't know about these reservations, it should have done.

That will not help Mr Gilligan, however. All journalism, struggling against deadlines and inevitably incomplete information, is flawed. All journalists want to rubbish a rival's story, particularly if the rival is as unclubbable, as conspicuously clever and as successful as Mr Gilligan. Mr Campbell knows this perfectly well; that is why he has chosen to fight on the ground of one reporter's sloppy use of words. Lord Hutton may not believe Mr Campbell's more preposterous claims - such as that no tabloid paper would publish anything without putting allegations to those criticised. But His Lordship is unlikely to find Mr Gilligan more than half-right in his 06.07 broadcast and may conclude that, if he had been more careful, there is a chance that Dr David Kelly would still be alive (and probably still unknown to the public) today.

No doubt the government will greet his verdict as a vindication. But its critics should not waste their breath over that. The invasion of Iraq has turned out to be wrong on every count. The danger now is that the US administration, having staked all on the claim that the Iraqi people earnestly desired their "liberation", will believe that, if only the "outside" influences can be dealt with, the country will be pacified; and that the next step, therefore, particularly with an election campaign in the offing, is to invade Syria or Iran. Implausible though that may seem now, think of what could happen if more deadly attacks in Iraq are accompanied by a further terrorist outrage in the US itself. The further danger is that the British government falls in line yet again. Whatever the outcome of the Hutton inquiry, Labour MPs and the wider public should make it clear to Tony Blair that it can never again be acceptable to go to war at Washington's behest.

Standards always fall

It has been said that, in truth, you will only ever find small variants on four health stories in the media: patients will suffer unless doctors get more money; new treatment cures cancer; old treatment causes cancer; and jogger's nipple, the novelty story. The same applies to education, where the four stories are: standards are falling; teacher hits pupil; pupil hits teacher; and headmaster elopes with nubile sixth-form girl. During August, when exam results are announced, only the first story is available. Fortunately, standards will always fall. If the nation's exam results actually improve, this is because standards of marking have gone down or because the papers are easier. If, on the other hand, the results deteriorate, this demonstrates falling standards among teachers and pupils. This year, as every year, the question will be thoroughly and seriously debated before we move on to the inevitable violence and sex of the autumn term.

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