Tony Blair camp readies its defence to Chilcot report

Tony Blair

Tony Blair is expected to defend his decision to join in the invasion of Iraq by asking his critics to think through the consequences for stability in the Middle East had Saddam Hussein been left in power, capable of developing weapons of mass destruction.

In the wake of the publication of the Chilcot inquiry report, friends of the former prime minister believe he will argue that the ultimate cause of the long-term bloodshed in Iraq was the scale of external intervention in the country by Iran and al-Qaida rather than failures in post-conflict planning.

Blair, frustrated by the repeated delays in the production of the report, has been meeting his allies to discuss his response, but is not planning to make any speech or intervention before publication on 6 July.

Once the Iraq war inquiry report is out, Blair is likely to fight back by arguing the need to look at counter-factual scenarios, including the consequence of leaving Saddam in power, and will continue to insist that the world is safer for the removal of Saddam.

Although no weapons of mass destruction were found, contrary to intelligence community forecasts, Blair is expected to say that Saddam retained the expertise and capacity make such weapons.

The former Labour leader has also previously expressed concern that the inquiry has shifted from being a “lessons learned” process to one in which errors of judgement, or deception, are identified.

The findings – still unknown to the Blair circle – have the potential to lead to an explosive civil war inside the Labour party just a fortnight after the European referendum result is announced.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has vowed Labour will officially apologise for taking the UK to war in Iraq on the basis of a deception and in breach of international law. He has been less explicit about whether Blair could plausibly be sent to the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

Corbyn’s determination to assert Blair deceived the British people about the nature of the threat posed by Saddam has infuriated some supporters of the former prime minister. It has led some Blairites to ask why the former prime minister is being treated by a war criminal by a man that refused to vote for action in the Commons against a known war criminal, the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Many in the Labour party think the timing of the report’s publication is intended to divert attention from the likely turmoil in the Conservative party over the conduct of the referendum to a potentially equally vicious blood-letting inside Labour.

Blair has argued in his autobiography and in a major speech in June 2014 that the bulk of the bloodshed, and the cause of the civil war from 2004 was the decision of both Iran and al-Qaida to enter Iraq, and to destroy the western reconstruction of Iraq.

But he will again accept that the planning for the aftermath of the war was inadequate, and make a series of recommendations on nation-building and setting up democratic institutions after a corrupt or brutal state is overthrown. He also accepts that the west did not understand the degree to which the country’s political economy was not functioning, and more pessimistic assumptions should have been made about the capability of the Iraqi state.

He said it is best to assume the worst about a corrupt or brutal state’s infrastructure and the integrity of its governing systems.

In probably his most self-critical judgement, Blair has accepted the west did not foresee the degree to which complex tribal, religious and sectarian tensions would be uncorked once a strong, repressive, all-powerful leader such as Saddam was removed. It has led him to favour more evolutionary approaches if possible both to the Arab spring and to western interventions in Libya, but not to flinch from what he has described as a “hard, unremitting counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency strategy”.

But he has told friends he still insists that this uncorking of forces in Iraq was so devastating because of the unexpected degree to which malevolent Iranian and al-Qaida forces infiltrated the country stirring up sectarian hatreds.

A campaign to defeat Saddam gradually changed into a campaign to defeat terrorism and a form of Islamist extremism. He insists this was more important than failures of post-war planning, even if he does accept that the sudden US decision to transfer responsibility from the State Department to the Defense Department on the eve of the invasion set back post-war planning and wrongfooted Whitehall.

He is also likely to challenge those that claim he was warned by Middle East academics in a November 2002 meeting about the chaos the US and the UK was likely to unleash by deposing Saddam. Academics at that event said they gave an explicit warning about the sectarian tensions inside Iraq repressed by Saddam and it is likely that Sir John Chilcot will have had access to the minutes of that meeting.

It was only one of many warnings given privately to Blair, including by the Foreign Office about the level of post-war planning.

He is also understood to have argued that peace-building needs to be a two-part process in which the nature of forces required for the aftermath of regime change are radically different from those required for regime change and that the international community has not yet built structures or capabilities to help construct democracies.

Blair has also proposed a senior team work inside No 10, led by a senior figure reporting directly to the prime minister on the same level as senior policy advisers whenever UK forces are engaged either in military conflict or peace-building. He has also accepted the capacity to build civil policing in Iraq did not exist early enough.

Senior figures in the Blair entourage are also expecting the Chilcot report will include a searching examination of the “special relationship” with the US, including the risks of the UK entering a military conflict with the US, not as an equal partner and outside the structures of either the EU or the United Nations.

Blair is likely to argue that the relationship is always unequal in terms of military hardware, but partnership with the US is essential to UK national security, and wider UK influence in the world particularly since 9/11.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Patrick Wintour, for The Guardian on Monday 6th June 2016 22.00 Europe/London

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