WASHINGTON -- Tony Blair, Britain's former prime minister and George W. Bush's chief ally in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, spent Wednesday playing defense after a damning government inquiry blasted his decision to go war.
The 2.5 million-word Chilcot report that was years in the making accused Blair of trusting flawed intelligence, demonstrating bad judgment and resisting peaceful alternative ways to deal with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Relying on previously undisclosed documents and seven years' worth of research, the inquiry offered a resounding critique of Blair's approach to Iraq.
What did the former prime minister offer? Platitudes and attempts to evade responsibility.
He began with a written statement that tried to shirk responsibility for British casualties in the war. Blair suggested that the official report proved he was acting in good faith when he chose to join former U.S. President George W. Bush in arguing for the invasion. Soldiers' families aren't likely to buy that: They said in a news conference after the release of the inquiry they remain committed to legal recourse and will scour the lengthy report for further basis for their case.
The once-popular politician then tried to dodge blame for another consequence of his push to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein: The current state of Iraq. Blair insisted in his written statement and a later appearance that he does not believe the invasion caused the current terrorism devastating countries in the Middle East.
This claim is equally egregious -- and a lot easier to disprove, given the mounds of evidence of the invasion's impact.
Blair got a couple of things right. Hussein was himself a source of terror for millions of his own people, particularly the U.S.-friendly Kurds and Iraq's vast Shiite Muslim community. The dictator also sheltered and promoted militants active in the West, Israel and Iran. His deliberate deepening of sectarian divides in Iraq and development of paramilitary organizations with ultra-conservative ideological views are largely overlooked reasons for why Iraq became an incubator for organizations like the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS. And Iraq today, after his fall, is one of the few quasi-functioning democracies in the Middle East.
But Blair, Bush and other cheerleaders of the Iraq War played a critical role in making the country less stable and helping foment terrorist groups like ISIS.
Western mismanagement of Iraq after 2003 encouraged thousands of skilled Iraqis to take their expertise to the anti-American insurgency that eventually became the Islamic State group, according to most Middle East watchers.
And Blair's preferred reading of history overlooks one of the key findings of the Chilcot inquiry: that the risk of violent militancy was clear back in 2003.
Hussein had at that point effectively controlled Iraq for more than 30 years. First tasting great power as the country’s intelligence and internal security chief, he invested heavily in making Iraq a police state, with loyal, well-trained agents of his Baath Party government as numerous in the country as conspiracy theories about their activities. He also focused on making his army a formidable force, appointing Sunni Arabs — members of his own sect of Islam and a minority in Iraq — to leadership positions. Hussein’s rule forced those soldiers and officials to become even closer to the despot, because they, like many other people in the centralized quasi-socialist state that was Iraq, were reliant on government salaries, subsidies and favor.
Then an American came to Baghdad and told all those well-trained, well-armed men that their services would no longer be required -- or allowed. L. Paul Bremer, Bush's choice to run Iraq, was given massive powers 14 years ago and a mandate to turn Iraq into a Republican dream: a free-market-loving, West-backing Muslim state that would stand as a shining beacon in the Middle East.
Bremer quietly left the country 14 months later, handing over power to an interim government in which 85 percent of Iraqis said they lacked confidence. Much of their discontent back then had to do with Iraq’s security problems. U.S. officials told The Washington Post Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi army exacerbated this situation.
One of the men who lost his job was a key architect of the Islamic State, according to a major report in the German magazine Der Spiegel.
Der Spiegel published a story last year based on captured documents that appear to belong to ISIS. Those documents discuss a man known to the militants as Haji Bakr. His real name — by which he was known when he served in Hussein’s air force intelligence services — was Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi.
Der Spiegel spoke about Bakr with Iraqi researcher Hisham al-Hashimi, who has advised the Iraqi government. Hashimi said that Bremer’s move left the onetime Hussein loyalist, already possibly radicalized under the Iraqi dictator during the 1990s, tilt toward conservatism, “bitter and unemployed.”
The report continues:
Thousands of well-trained Sunni officers were robbed of their livelihood with the stroke of a pen. In doing so, America created its most bitter and intelligent enemies. Bakr went underground and met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Anbar Province in western Iraq. Zarqawi, a Jordanian by birth, had previously run a training camp for international terrorist pilgrims in Afghanistan. Starting in 2003, he gained global notoriety as the mastermind of attacks against the United Nations, US troops and Shiite Muslims. He was even too radical for former Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi died in a US air strike in 2006.
Although Iraq’s dominant Baath Party was secular, the two systems ultimately shared a conviction that control over the masses should lie in the hands of a small elite that should not be answerable to anyone — because it ruled in the name of a grand plan, legitimized by either God or the glory of Arab history. The secret of IS’ success lies in the combination of opposites, the fanatical beliefs of one group and the strategic calculations of the other.
Bakr, a top adviser to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, died in 2014. Bakr had firmly established Baghdadi’s pre-eminence within the group, helped them seize key towns in Syria and played a major role in the group’s split from the central al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and its affiliate in Syria by then, according to Der Spiegel’s story and an analysis of Islamic State comments in The Long War Journal.
That last move was central to the Islamic State’s claim to statehood and global leadership over Muslims. It is also thought to have enhanced the group’s prestige among radicalized youth from around the world, thus making it more attractive to potential recruits.
A Washington Post investigation confirmed the importance of former Hussein figures like Bakr in the overall Islamic State structure.
“Even with the influx of thousands of foreign fighters, almost all of the leaders of the Islamic State are former Iraqi officers, including the members of its shadowy military and security committees, and the majority of its emirs and princes, according to Iraqis, Syrians and analysts who study the group,” the Post reported.
Other key factors in Iraq's decline and the rise of ISIS -- like the Obama administration's short-sighted mismanagement of the country's politics and the harmful meddling of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his ally Iran -- need to be part of any full accounting. But there's no way to deny the link back to 2003. Much as Blair and other Iraq invasion proponents might dislike the legacy of their decision, it's impossible for them to pretend it doesn’t exist.