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9 June 2003

How the Prime Minister deceived us

Clare Short, for the first time, gives a full account of the events that led to her concerns over wa

By Clare Short

The tragedy of the UK crisis over Iraq is that there was an honourable role we could have played that would have helped the Iraqi people, honoured the authority of the UN and helped the US to avoid a major mistake. The instinct of the Labour Party and the British people was to take this course, but all the evidence points to the conclusion that the Prime Minister signed up to support for US military action and then misled his country in order to fulfil that commitment.

I agree with the neoconservatives that Iraq was unfinished business that could not be ignored. I do not accept that containment was an adequate policy: Saddam Hussein was an evil tyrant guilty of terrible crimes against humanity. He was defying the UN; the Iraqi people were suffering as a result of his tyranny and of 12 years of sanctions. Iraq’s plight was also stoking the anger of the Arab and Muslim world, which saw Israel ignore UN resolutions without consequences, while sanctions impoverished Iraq.

Bob Woodward’s book Bush at War, published last year with full White House co-operation, tells us that Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, and others pressed for regime change in Iraq immediately after 11 September. Colin Powell, the secretary of state, and others persuaded the president that to take unilateral action would be dangerous. Bush, Powell said, should try to create a coalition or make a pitch for UN action.

This was the space into which stepped Tony Blair. It is clear from material in the recently published The War We Could Not Stop (Guardian Books) – which can only have been sourced from the Blair entourage – that by 9 September, Blair and Bush were agreed that there had to be military action in Iraq. My conclusion now is that Blair had promised Bush that the UK would support military action in September 2002, if not before, and that he set out to help Bush build a coalition with a target date for action of spring 2003.

The problem confronting Blair was that his party and country were not willing to sign up for immediate military action. There were two strands in the opposition – one largely pacifist and/or anti-American which had opposed action in Kosovo and Afghanistan. The larger grouping, of which I was a member, was well aware of the evil of Saddam’s regime, but also of the anger of the Middle East and the suffering of the Palestinian and Iraqi people. We wanted a way forward through the UN, making progress on Palestine first and working for the disarmament and removal of Saddam without all-out war, if at all possible. Most of us believed we needed to threaten military action to achieve this outcome, but avoid it if possible.

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Bush challenged the UN to enforce the many resolutions the Security Council had passed with which Saddam Hussein had not complied. Out of this came unanimous support for Resolution 1441 and the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq in late November. This was a great and welcome advance and, in time, the inspectors started to make substantial progress, achieving the destruction of more than 60 ballistic missiles. Yet the impatience of the US and UK intensified. Jack Straw has said that we had to threaten war in order to avert war, and I accepted that. But then there were repeated press reports that the military could not wait in the desert over the summer and that there must be action by March at the latest. Senior sources inside Whitehall told me that Blair had agreed a target date for military action of 15 February (which was later extended to mid-March). This contrasted with his repeated assurances that there would be a second UN resolution. At this stage, I was still hopeful that Blair would constrain Bush and that progress would be made through the UN.

Yet the drums of war beat louder. There was mounting worry in Whitehall about the legality of war. We had no advice from the Attorney General. Officials had informed me that Foreign Office lawyers had disagreed about the legality and that, as became public, one had resigned. I was also told that the military would not go to war without the Attorney General making clear that there was legal authority. There were rumours at high levels that he did not think there was such authority, and might resign. At a cabinet meeting on 12 March, I asked for a meeting with the Attorney General present and this was agreed. But it was quite extraordinary that his advice became available so late in the day. We heard it at a cabinet meeting on 17 March, the same day that Robin Cook resigned; the Attorney General delivered it sitting in Cook’s vacant chair. It was unequivocal: Security Council Resolution 1441 and previous resolutions on Iraq gave authority for military action – provided it was designed to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

By this time, I had given my interview to Radio 4’s Westminster Hour in which I described Blair as “reckless”. War looked inevitable and I knew it was too late to criticise once the war had started and our troops were in action. I got masses of adoring mail and, from Blair, a series of phone calls and meetings. He told me he felt personally betrayed. I said it wasn’t personal and I was happy to resign immediately. He said that would make things worse. I said I would agree now to resign later. He said no. I was then the object of an intense charm offensive. I had been arguing for months that, before any action was taken on Iraq, the road map to Palestinian statehood should be published and under implementation so that the people of the Middle East saw some commitment to justice. Blair asked on 13 March if I would stay if Bush agreed to publish the road map. I said it might give me a dilemma; he said that might help him with Bush. He also told me that Bush had promised a UN mandate for the reconstruction of Iraq. On 14 March, he asked to see me at around noon and said Bush would announce the publication of the road map at 3.30pm, but if it leaked he would not do so!

On 15 March, I spoke to the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, who hoped there would be one more effort to get a compromise. I said the UK was blaming France. He said this was unfair: almost the whole Security Council were agreed that the time given to Hans Blix, leader of the UN weapons inspectors, was too short and that there should not be an automatic trigger for war, but an explicit authorisation.

The US churches pushed a compromise plan which included: (1) publication of the road map; (2) Palestinian statehood; (3) the indictment of Saddam; (4) “coercive disarmament backed by UN-mandated force”; (5) lifting of sanctions and a big humanitarian programme for Iraq; and (6) “progress to democracy in Iraq” through “a post-Hussein UN administration rather than a US military occupation”. I tried to get Blair, Annan and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, involved in this, but Blair wasn’t interested.

When Blair made his final push to keep me in the government, he promised a full UN mandate for reconstruction and was also adamant that the French president, Jacques Chirac, had already made clear that he would veto any second resolution. He said he could have got more time for Blix through a Chilean compromise formula – allowing some more time for Saddam to comply – if the French had not taken this position. I accepted this account, but was later sent by a member of the public an English translation of the transcript of Chirac’s interview with French TV on 10 March. This made clear that France would indeed vote against any resolution that truncated the Blix process or allowed the US/UK to declare war without specific UN authority. But Chirac also said that if, after a few months, the inspectors came to the Security Council and said they were unable to guarantee Iraq’s disarmament, “in that case it will be for the Security Council and it alone to decide the right thing to do. But in that case, of course, regrettably, the war would become inevitable. It isn’t today.”

My decision to stay in the government brought an abrupt end to the charm offensive. I was clear that we needed to prepare for the reconstruction by getting the military to prioritise their Geneva Convention obligations to keep order, provide for immediate humanitarian needs and keep civil administration running. This would enable the International Red Cross, the UN and NGOs to operate in Iraq. And then we needed urgent action in the Security Council to ask the secretary general to appoint a special representative to put in place an interim Iraqi administration and help the Iraqis to agree on drawing up a constitution and organising elections. This would be accompanied by the lifting of sanctions as soon as the war was over and the engagement of the World Bank and the IMF to support economic reform and ensure that change in the oil sector was carried out transparently and properly.

All this flowed from the need to respect international law and for the coalition members to accept that, as occupying powers, they had no authority to engage in major reform or bring into being a legitimate government. The UK military took these obligations very seriously; unfortunately the US did not.

I talked to ministers across the world to try to help bring the international community together. I visited the UN, the World Bank and the IMF. At the World Bank annual meeting, I hosted a dinner for French, German, Canadian and Scandinavian ministers and argued that, whatever the doubts about the route to war, we needed to unite to help the people of Iraq to rebuild.

There was great fear in the IMF and World Bank that the bitter divisions in the Security Council would bring division to them, too. We worked hard to get agreement on a final communique outlining how we could work together on Iraq with the appropriate UN process to establish an interim government.

But none of this was to be. Blair and Straw were increasingly triumphalist and the US had no interest in the Geneva Convention or the need for a UN resolution. It had established the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) in the Pentagon, headed by the former US general Jay Garner, with British Major General Tim Cross as his deputy. I had worked with Cross closely in Kosovo and thought very highly of him. But ORHA was established only weeks before the conflict was due to begin and was bogged down in Washington politics. It was busy choosing who would be in the next government of Iraq and not preparing for its Geneva Convention obligations.

Even more surprisingly, there was US opposition to the return of the weapons inspectors after the war. Yet we had been told that one of the reasons for war was that weapons of mass destruction might fall into al-Qaeda’s hands. If this was a danger, the chaos of postwar Iraq surely made it more likely; yet no action was taken to prevent it. Blair and Straw wanted nothing of my commitment to international law and the Attorney General’s advice. They were determined to negotiate bilaterally with the US and present the rest of the world with a fait accompli. Negotiations were pulled into an ever-diminishing circle in No 10 – normal Whitehall systems completely broke down in the run-up to the Security Council resolution of 22 May, so much so that senior officials got the draft resolution from the BBC website.

It was clear that I had to leave the government. There were two things left to do – to chair the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development meeting in Uzbekistan and the talks between the presidents of Uganda and Rwanda in London. I loved and was proud of my department, but you cannot stay in a government of which you are ashamed.

My conclusion is that our Prime Minister deceived us. No doubt he thought his reasons honourable. He exaggerated the imminent threat from WMDs. He agreed a date for military action that made the completion of the Blix process and a decent second resolution impossible. He misled us about the French position in order to cover up his failure to win a second resolution. He failed to honour the Attorney General’s advice on the legalities of reconstruction, and the secrecy and lack of respect for international law explains why ORHA did not prepare for its Geneva Convention obligations – and thus the continuing chaos and suffering in Iraq.

This is a very sad conclusion, but I see no other explanation.

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