The U.K. had a preview of slaughter, ISIS — and a veto, but didn't use it: Nahlah Ayed

The voluminous, 2.6 million-word Chilcot report into the 2003 invasion of Iraq reminds us that politicians, including the U.S. president and the U.K. prime minister, who are behind the decision to invade and occupy were woefully and wilfully unprepared as they stampeded to war, CBC's Nahlah Ayed writes.

Report into the 2003 war in Iraq says risks were 'explicitly identified before the invasion'

Demonstrators protested at the Queen Elizabeth II centre in London on Wednesday before the release of the John Chilcot report into the war in Iraq. (Paul Hackett/Reuters)

To the endless words written to try to explain the roots of Iraq's tragedy: add 2.6 million.

The country's infinite downward spiral can hardly be explained without such biblical figures: since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, as many as five million or more have been internally or externally displaced, and somewhere between a quarter of a million and a million are dead. 

Count among them some 250 more people cut down in a single hideous suicide bombing in Baghdad just last week.

It was difficult, driving into Baghdad on April 9, 2003, to imagine such horror, even with the din of airstrikes echoing ahead. Even with the looters prying valuables from palaces and private homes alike.

But Iraqis knew. Those who understood their country's volatile underbelly, back when Saddam Hussein's statue was pulled down to much fanfare in Baghdad, did predict mayhem. They told us as much, then, but quietly, trying hard not to puncture the celebratory air. 

What they could not imagine then was the scale of the horror that subsequently followed, and the price they would pay for U.S. and British impetuousness in the face of substantial opposition. But they acknowledged, at least, there would be horrors.

John Chilcot, chairman of the Iraq inquiry, is seen in 2009. His newly released report reviewed details and the decision-making process during the run-up to the war in Iraq. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

Woefully, wilfully unprepared

The voluminous, 2.6 million-word report by John Chilcot, a former British civil servant, now comes along to remind us that outside of Iraq too — the politicians, intelligence experts, the president and the prime minister behind the decision to invade and occupy — ought to have also known, and that they did, in fact, know, and yet were woefully and wilfully unprepared for it as they stampeded to war.

Crucially, the report also says leaders had an explicit preview not only of the internecine slaughter, but also of extremist threats, of the sleeper cells — essentially, of ISIS itself, whose threat now engulfs Iraq and Syria daily, and is also the object of the world powers' current coalition war.

So as if destroying a country, and eviscerating a nation weren't enough, the decision will also be remembered not only for what it's done to Baghdad and Mosul, but to Raqqa, Damascus, Beirut, Turkey, Paris, Brussels and beyond.

And yet, the report concludes, painfully, that while the U.K. knew the various pitfalls, and could have acted, it did not.

A British soldier aims his gun in Iraq in 2009. (Nabil al-Jurani/Associated Press)

Litany of failures

In his testimony, former prime minister Tony Blair told the inquiry the "difficulties" encountered in Iraq after the invasion could not have been known in advance.

"We do not agree that hindsight is required," says Chilcot said in response, in a particularly damning part of his statement.  

"The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability and al-Qaeda activity in Iraq were each explicitly identified before the invasion."

It is one stark example of the cruel litany of failures, and lies, that we now know separate Iraq before, and Iraq after. 

The Chilcot inquiry's seven-year, 12-volume post-mortem of the U.K.'s decision to help start the century's second major war is a sobering read, a damning indictment of the very decision to go to war, but also, crucially, of the decision to occupy without heeding the warnings about consequences and risk.

See Nahlah Ayed's update from London after results of the Iraq invasion inquiry were released below, or by visiting CBC News on Facebook.

Read backwards, the report is also a roadmap for how it could have — should have — all been averted. But it wasn't. 

Instead, the report says Blair was also aware of the wider extremist threats, that he had been warned presciently by intelligence officials that "the greatest terrorist threat in the event of military action against Iraq will come from al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists."

The report says the warnings were made as early as October 2002, and in February 2003, and again in March 2003, when the U.K.'s Joint Intelligence Committee presciently predicted al-Qaeda "might have established sleeper cells in Baghdad, to be activated during a U.S. occupation."

It means the powers behind the eventual invasion had been given a preview of the genesis of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — a preview they blatantly ignored.

It was a small but what should have been a clear window into the threat that continues to touch us all.

Former prime minister Tony Blair told the Chilcot inquiry that the 'difficulties' encountered in Iraq after the invasion could not have been known in advance.

'Elements of truth'

Last year, Blair did finally acknowledge at least there was some "elements of truth" to the now-accepted idea that the turmoil in Iraq led directly to the birth of ISIS.

He apologized for "our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime."

"You can't say those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015," he said.

On Wednesday, Blair would not fully accept that Iraq's turmoil and void in the aftermath of invasion ultimately spawned ISIS.

"It was in the chaos of Syria … in that ungovernable space, that's where ISIS came into being," he said, but that "non-intervention could also lead to those [ungovernable] spaces being created."

The roots of terrorism are so much deeper than what happened in Iraq, he added.

Blair made no mention of the explicit and repeated warnings he received more than a decade earlier. Or of knowing his forces were under-resourced and unable to provide the kind of security necessary to avert the known risks.

Sadly, what happened in Iraq has the appearance of proving the Middle East's dictators right. That only they could keep a lid on the extremist threat, that it was their tough rule, their authoritarianism that mostly kept extremists at bay and under control.

The West had an opportunity — and was armed by the necessary information — to prove them wrong, by doing things differently. 

They could have done so by considering other options to an ill-informed war, or at the very least, delaying its start until the point they were certain how they would proceed, to avert the horror, once Saddam was removed.

And yet, despite watching the U.S. jump headlong into war, and despite knowing about the lack of post-conflict preparation, and despite its failure to persuade the U.S. to allow for a leading role for the UN post-conflict, the Chilcot report says that "at no stage did the U.K. government formally consider other policy options, including the possibility of making participation in military action conditional on a satisfactory plan for the post-conflict period."

The U.K., in other words, had a veto, and didn't use it. And millions, literally millions, have suffered as a result.

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.