LONDON • Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain went to war alongside the US in Iraq in 2003 on the basis of flawed intelligence that went unchallenged, a shaky legal rationale, inadequate preparation and exaggerated public statements, an independent inquiry into the war concluded in a report published yesterday.
The long-awaited report by the Iraq Inquiry Committee, led by Sir John Chilcot, takes up 12 volumes covering 2.6 million words, four times longer than War And Peace, and took seven years to complete, longer than Britain's combat operations in Iraq.
It concluded that Mr Blair and the British government underestimated the difficulties and consequences of the war and overestimated the influence he would have over then US President George W. Bush.
The result amounts to a broad indictment of Britain's involvement in the war that overthrew Saddam Hussein and its aftermath. It portrays Mr Blair as trying without success to restrain Mr Bush, push him to obtain full UN Security Council authorisation and warn him about the difficulties of the war - and deciding to go to war alongside Washington nonetheless.
Judging that Britain should stand by the US, he told Mr Bush in a private note as early as July 28, 2002, that "I will be with you, whatever".
FINDINGS AT A GLANCE
Some of the key findings of the inquiry into Britain's decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003:
SHORTCOMINGS IN LEGAL PROCESS
Sir John Chilcot, the head of the inquiry, said in his statement: "We have concluded that the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for UK military action were far from satisfactory."
The report cited several shortcomings in the legal process, including the fact that the legal advice produced by the government's top lawyer was presented to a Cabinet meeting of senior ministers, but not discussed in detail.
The report criticised the way then Prime Minister Tony Blair presented intelligence information to the public. The intelligence itself was also criticised.
"At no stage was the proposition that Iraq might no longer have chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or programmes identified and examined by either the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) or the policy community," the report said.
PEACEFUL OPTIONS NOT EXHAUSTED
The report said that Britain chose to join the invasion of Iraq before peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. "At the time of the parliamentary vote of March, diplomatic options had not been exhausted. The point had not been reached where military action was the last resort," it said.
INCREASED AL-QAEDA THREAT
Mr Blair was warned about the threat of increased Al-Qaeda activity as a result of the invasion, the report said. "Mr Blair had been advised that an invasion of Iraq was expected to increase the threat to the UK and UK interests from Al-Qaeda and its affiliates."
It cited Mr Blair's response, made in a 2011 statement: "I took the view then and take the same view now that to have backed down because of the threat of terrorism would be completely wrong."
"The Iraq of 2009 certainly did not meet the UK's objectives as described in January 2003: it fell far short of strategic success. Although the borders of Iraq were the same as they had been in 2003, deep sectarian division threatened both stability and unity," the report said.
POOR POST-INVASION PLANNING
The report criticised the government's post-conflict planning for Iraq. "When the invasion began, the UK government was not in a position to conclude that satisfactory plans had been drawn up and preparations made to meet known post-conflict challenges and risks in Iraq and to mitigate the risk of strategic failure."
In the same note made public along with the report, Mr Blair went on to tell Mr Bush: "If we win quickly, everyone will be our friend. If we don't... recriminations will start fast."
The report is likely to underline in Britain the sense that Mr Blair was "Washington's poodle", the phrase widely used by Mr Blair's critics at the time.
The report says the lessons from the government's conduct are that "all aspects" of military intervention "need to be calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigour", and decisions, once made, "need to be implemented fully".
Sir Chilcot, speaking for the inquiry as a whole, concluded that "sadly, neither was the case in relation to the UK government's actions in Iraq". And he emphasised that Britain's relationship with the US was a strong one. It is able "to bear the weight of honest disagreement", he said. "It does not require unconditional support where our interests or judgments differ."
In a statement to the House of Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron, who voted with his party in favour of the war, said that all the MPs who voted for the war must "take our fair share of the responsibility".
"We cannot turn the clock back but can ensure that lessons are learnt and acted on," he said.
Mr Cameron said new procedures to ensure "proper separation" between intelligence and the process for assessing it has already been put in place."Taking the country to war should always be a last resort," he said, adding, however, that "we should not conclude that intervention is always wrong".
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, the current head of Mr Blair's Labour party, said the war was "an act of military aggression launched on a false pretext" that "fuelled and spread terrorism across the region".
The inquiry, while revealing little that changes the understanding of the war, its preparation and aftermath, pulls no punches on a deeply flawed British governmental process.
"It is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments," Sir Chilcot said. "They were not challenged, and they should have been."
The inquiry did not make any judgment on legal culpability.
Outside the convention centre where Sir Chilcot spoke, near Parliament, demonstrators chanted and held up a sign reading: "Blair must face war crimes trial."
The war killed about 200 Britons, including 179 British troops, almost 4,500 American personnel and more than 100,000 Iraqis.
Addressing a press conference after the report's release, Mr Blair voiced "sorrow, regret and apology", but said he did not mislead Parliament and did not regret toppling Saddam Hussein.
"I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe," said Mr Blair, his voice breaking.
The former premier said the decision to take Britain to war was the "most agonising" he had ever taken, adding: "I will never agree that those who died or were injured... made their sacrifice in vain."
"At least in Iraq, for all its challenges, we have today a government that is elected, is recognised as internationally legitimate," he added.
NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS