On British “success” in Iraq

By David Morrison |

“Tony Blair, I’m afraid, would never accept that our foreign policy actually had any impact on radicalization. …That’s clearly rubbish.” (Lord West)

Lieutenant-General John Cooper used to occupy a small office in the vast new US Embassy in Baghdad, as the (British) deputy commander of the Multinational Force Iraq (MNF-I). The US had always accorded Britain this honour, as the second largest contributor to the occupation forces, though very little was seen or heard from successive holders of the office.

However, when Lieutenant-General Cooper retired from his post on 3 March 2009, he used the occasion to justify British military intervention in Iraq. No doubt, his script was supplied by 10 Downing Street.

According to the general, our intervention has been a great success. In an interview with The Guardian on 2 March 2009, he said that “the army will leave Iraq with al-Qaida largely defeated and the roots of democracy firmly planted” [1]. 179 British military personnel have been killed and 315 wounded (and around £6.5 billion spent) to achieve this great success [2].

It would be uncharitable to mention that neither of these objectives was mentioned in the motion passed by the House of Commons on 18 March 2003 supporting military action against Iraq, or in Prime Minister Blair’s speech proposing the motion [3], or in the official document Iraq: Military Campaign Objectives [4] defining our war aims. Nevertheless, according to the general, the deaths of 179 British military personnel and the wounding of 315 others was a price worth paying for this “success” [5], even though it was not the “success” we set out to achieve.

Al-Qaida “greatly reduced”
General Cooper was reluctant to go as far as the US military and say that al-Qaida had been “strategically defeated”, but he did say:

“Al-Qaida had been here in significant numbers and hopefully their aims and objectives have been denied to them. …They have suffered significant reverses and their ability to operate and target civilians has been diminished. Their organisational ability has been greatly reduced.” [1]

Before getting carried away with this “success”, the general should recall that we didn’t invade Iraq in order to suppress al-Qaida — for the very good reason that there was no al-Qaida in Iraq when we invaded. (To be more precise, there was no al-Qaida in the part of Iraq controlled by Saddam Hussein.) So the “success” he boasts about has been to reduce the al-Qaida presence in Iraq to a level somewhat higher than it was before we started.

Al-Qaida boosted globally as predicted
It is particularly absurd to boast that US/UK intervention in Iraq has been “successful” against al-Qaida, when that intervention gave al-Qaida a boost not only in Iraq but globally, as the British intelligence services said, prior to the invasion, it would do.

Most likely, the bombings in London on 7 July 2005 would not have taken place if Britain hadn’t been a party to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Two of the London bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan [6] and Shehzad Tanweer [7], made videos prior to their deaths and they both state clearly that it was British intervention in the Muslim world, and Iraq in particular, which motivated their action.

In February 2003, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) produced an assessment called International Terrorism: War with Iraq, which was in the Government’s hands prior to the invasion. Aspects of it came into the public domain in September 2003 with the publication of the Intelligence & Security Committee’s report Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction — Intelligence and Assessments [8]. According to this report (paragraph 126):

“The JIC assessed that al-Qaida and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq.”

The latter view was advanced by most opponents of military action against Iraq. The Government chose not to divulge to Parliament that the intelligence services shared this view, lest it reduce MPs’ enthusiasm for the invasion.

Britain’s turn
When al-Qaida struck London on 7 July 2005, the political establishment in Britain was more or less unanimous that British intervention in Iraq played no part in bringing it about. Instead, we were told that Western democracies are all under threat from Muslim extremists, who want to destroy our way of life (whatever that means) and it was simply Britain’s turn on 7 July 2005.

This stance was maintained even though in July 2005 the MI5 website said in a page headed Threat to the UK from International Terrorism:

“In recent years, Iraq has become a dominant issue for a range of extremist groups and individuals in the UK and Europe.”

This straightforward message remained on the MI5 website for the next couple of years.

A few months earlier, in April 2005, a JIC report entitled International Terrorism: Impact of Iraq was even more explicit about the motivating effect of the invasion of Iraq. The following extracts from it were published in The Sunday Times on 2 April 2006 [9]:

“Iraq is likely to be an important motivating factor for some time to come in the radicalisation of British Muslims and for those extremists who view attacks against the UK as legitimate.”

“There is a clear consensus within the UK extremist community that Iraq is a legitimate jihad and should be supported. Iraq has re-energised and refocused a wide range of networks in the UK.”

“We judge that the conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat from international terrorism and will continue to have an impact in the long term. It has reinforced the determination of terrorists who were already committed to attacking the West and motivated others who were not.”

“Some jihadists who leave Iraq will play leading roles in recruiting and organising terrorist networks, sharing their skills and possibly conducting attacks. It is inevitable that some will come to the UK.”

This was the considered assessment of the British intelligence services a few months before al-Qaida struck in London. So, British military action in Iraq was an outstanding success in putting Britain firmly on al-Qaida’s hit list.

Wretched capitulation
However, in July 2005 and since, the Government has done its best to give the impression that the threat to Britain from al-Qaida is unconnected with the British intervention in Iraq, or any other aspect of British foreign policy towards the Muslim world.

In his final address to the Labour Party conference, the Prime Minister dismissed the notion out of hand, saying:

“This is a struggle that will last a generation and more. But this I believe passionately: we will not win until we shake ourselves free of the wretched capitulation to the propaganda of the enemy, that somehow we are the ones responsible.

“This terrorism isn’t our fault. We didn’t cause it. It’s not the consequence of foreign policy. It’s an attack on our way of life.” [10]

Lord West’s rubbish (or bollocks)
Last January, in the aftermath of Israel’s assault on Gaza, for the first time that I can recall a Government minister admitted in a straightforward fashion that this was “bollocks”. The minister in question was the former head of the navy, Lord West, who was appointed by Gordon Brown as the Home Office Minister responsible for security and counter-terrorism.

According to the Daily Telegraph on 28 January 2009, Lord West told a conference in London:

“Tony Blair, I’m afraid, would never accept that our foreign policy actually had any impact on radicalization. …That’s clearly rubbish.” [11]

(The Guardian report said he used the word “bollocks” [12]).

On Gaza, he said:

“To pretend what happens abroad has no impact is nonsense. … This business in Gaza has not helped us at all in our counter- radicalization policy. There is no doubt about that.”

Lord West is famous for opposing 42-day detention on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 one morning in November 2007 — and recanting an hour later after he had breakfast with Gordon Brown. He has yet to recant on this issue. However, the Home Office did offer a clarification on his behalf: according to the Telegraph:

“A Home Office spokesman said that the minister had meant that foreign policy was illegitimately used as a ‘tool’ by radicals and terrorists.”

Which in no way negates West’s plain statement that British foreign policy has an impact on Muslim radicalisation — as the British intelligence services have been saying for years.

No more bollocks?
Lord West claimed that “Gordon Brown is much clearer” than Tony Blair on this issue, that is, unlike Blair, he accepts that foreign policy does have an impact on radicalisation. That isn’t obvious looking in from outside.

Today, the MI5 website page “international terrorism” no longer mentions Iraq. Now al-Qaida’s motivation is described in the following terms:

“The terrorists draw their inspiration from a global message articulated by figures such as Usama bin Laden. The message is uncompromising and asserts that the West represents a threat to Islam; that loyalty to religion and loyalty to democratic institutions and values are incompatible; and that violence is the only proper response.” [13]

There, the crucial point that the primary motivation for al-Qaida terrorism against the West is Western interference in the Muslim world has been erased.

Jacqui Smith, Lord West’s boss in the Home Office, made a major speech on “the threat of international terrorism” to Britain on 15 October 2008 [14]. In a 3,000-word speech, she provided the following penetrating analysis of what drives al-Qaida to commit terrorism:

“They want a reordering of global political structures and a separation of faith groups …. and to subvert our institutions.”

No mention there of foreign policy being a driver for Muslim radicalisation.

As for the Prime Minister, he regularly trots out the usual Blairite guff about British troops being in Afghanistan to defend “our way of life”. Here’s an extract from his remarks to troops in Helmand on 13 December 2008:

“There is a line of terror, a chain of terror that goes from the Pakistani and Afghan mountains right across and could end up in the cities and towns of Britain and indeed any other country. And we are safer in Britain, the people of Britain are safer because of what you do here, checking the Taliban, operating as the frontline against them, making sure that they cannot make advances, holding them in and holding al Qaeda in as well, and that is the important work that you do.” [15]

The truth is the other way up: the best way of making the people of Britain safer is for Britain to stop interfering in the Muslim world, for British troops to go home and stay home. 149 British troops have died in Afghanistan (and 599 have been wounded) [16] — and in the process the people of Britain have been made less safe.

Pursue Prevent Protect Prepare
The Home Secretary has just produced an enormous document entitled Pursue Prevent Protect Prepare: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering International Terrorism [17].

You will search in vain in this 176-page document for any echo of the intelligence services judgement that “the conflict in Iraq has exacerbated the threat from international terrorism and will continue to have an impact in the long term”.

However, there is a peripheral acknowledgement that foreign policy, or rather a mistaken perception of foreign policy by Muslims, has some impact. For example, it says:

“Radicalisation has a range of causes (including perceptions of our foreign policy)” (p 9)

And, in the “prevent” section, which is concerned with “stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting violent extremism”, it says:

“Other grievances are based on a perception of this country and Government policy, notably foreign policy. Many of these perceptions are misinformed. We will explain and debate our policies and refute claims made about them by those who support terrorism.” (p 91)

So, once Muslims have their incorrect ideas corrected, radicalisation will subside.

Roots of democracy firmly planted?
According to General Cooper, not only have we managed to reduce the al-Qaida presence in Iraq to a level somewhat higher than it was before we started, we have also planted the roots of democracy firmly in Iraq by our intervention.

Of course, as I said earlier, bringing democracy to Iraq wasn’t an objective of our invasion either. Before the invasion, Prime Minister Blair stated categorically that he would be content to leave Saddam Hussein in his place if he got rid of his “weapons of mass destruction”, in accordance with Security Council resolutions. Blair told the House of Commons on 25 February 2003:

“I detest his regime — I hope most people do — but even now, he could save it by complying with the UN’s demand. Even now, we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully.”

That was Blair’s story at any rate — and who am I to call him a liar.

The officially stated objectives
Six years on, it is worth recalling the officially stated objectives of British military action against Iraq. The operative part of the motion supporting military action, passed by the House of Commons on 18 March 2003, was:

“That this House … believes that the United Kingdom must uphold the authority of the United Nations as set out in Resolution 1441 and many Resolutions preceding it, and therefore supports the decision of Her Majesty’s Government that the United Kingdom should use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction;” [3]

The official document specifying the military objectives of Operation Telic, the operation mounted by British forces, states:

“The prime objective remains to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and their associated programmes and means of delivery, including prohibited ballistic missiles, as set out in relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs).” [4]

This document, entitled Iraq: Military Campaign Objectives, used to be prominent on the Operation Telic website, as one would expect. Today, it’s no longer prominent there. The Operation Telic website answers the question: What are British forces doing in Iraq? in a very different manner:

“British Armed Forces have been helping the Iraqis to secure and rebuild their country after years of neglect and conflict. The mission of the MNF-I has been working in partnership with the Iraqi Government to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq. …

“During his speech to Parliament on 22 July 2008, Prime Minister Gordon Brown underlined our mission objective in Iraq, saying that the UK seeks: ‘The creation of an independent, prosperous, democratic Iraq that is free of terrorist violence, secure within its borders and a stable presence in the region – something that is firmly in Britain’s interests and in the interests of the world as a whole.’” [18]

Needless to say, “weapons of mass destruction” aren’t mentioned.

A price worth paying?
General Cooper expressed the opinion that the 179 deaths and 315 injuries suffered by British troops was a price worth paying for the “success” we achieved in Iraq [5].

However, he didn’t address the question of whether the price paid by Iraqis was a price worth paying for this “success”. In fact, the general didn’t say one word about the death, injury and displacement of Iraqis, since British (and American) Armed Forces began “helping” them in March 2003.

At least a hundred thousand Iraqis, and perhaps many more, have been killed, as a result of the US/UK invasion and the destruction Iraqi state. Many more have been injured. About 2 million Iraqis are refugees in Syria and Jordan, and perhaps another 2 million are displaced internally. All this, thanks to our intervention.

We will ever know how many Iraqis have been killed, because, in the famous words of General Tommy Franks, the US commander of the invading forces: “We don’t do body counts”. If the bodies are Iraqi, he should have added for accuracy.

The estimates of Iraqi deaths that exist have, until recently, been put together by organisations other than the occupying powers. From the outset, the Iraq Body Count (IBC) organisation has compiled a count of Iraqi civilians killed from media reports of incidents. This count is inevitably an underestimate since not all incidents in which Iraqis die are reported in the media.

As of 22 March 2009, the IBC estimate was in the range 91,146 to 99,525 [19] (and the death toll is rising again). The IBC view is that the actual number could be double that. Other estimates have been much higher.

Had British (and American) forces stayed at home and refrained from “helping the Iraqis”, hundreds of thousands of them that are now dead would still be alive.

Operation Telic infomation
The Operation Telic website [20] provides an enormous amount of information about the British invasion and occupation of Iraq.

There, you can learn about British troop deployments — 46,000 initially, 4,100 today, all but 400 to be withdrawn by the end of July 2009, 179 killed, 315 wounded, 3,147 others admitted to hospital due to disease or non-battle injury, total cost of operation around £6.5 billion. There you can learn that today, apart from the US/UK, only Australia and Romania have troops in Iraq, compared with around 30 states a year ago. There you will about the “reconstruction” being carried out in Iraq with British money, including the extraordinary fact that “over 180 journalists have been trained in independent journalism and feature writing”.

But there’s not a single word about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.