Brian Wilson: Don't forget how many Saddam Hussein killed

The gratitude of the Kurds should not be overlooked alongside the findings of The Chilcot Report, writes Brian Wilson

Saddam Hussein addresses the court of the Iraqi High Tribunal inside the heavily fortified Green Zone on February 14, 2006. Picture: Getty Images
Saddam Hussein addresses the court of the Iraqi High Tribunal inside the heavily fortified Green Zone on February 14, 2006. Picture: Getty Images

I’m on the mailing list for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s office in London and noticed their statement in the wake of the Chilcot Report. The nub of it was: “The Kurds are eternally grateful for the British helping to overthrow Saddam Hussein, who committed genocide against us”.

As far as I know, this received no media coverage. In more normal times, the grateful thanks of a people protected from “genocide” might be deemed worthy of note. In Scotland, one might think the comments of a nationalist government, seeking to separate from a larger state, could gain some sympathy. But why disturb the preferred political narrative with inconvenient facts?

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

I don’t know if the Marsh Arabs have a communications department. There were 250,000 of them until the 1980s. Then Saddam Hussein’s regime killed 60,000 while 100,000 fled. No-fly zones were an attempt to protect them. In the absence of an unreported press statement, it would be reasonable to assume that they too were “eternally grateful” to see the back of their arch-oppressor.

There is no contradiction between recalling these considerations while accepting the validity of Chilcot’s report. From what I have seen, it presents an authoritative and all too recognisable account of events and actions, many of them shocking and reprehensible. Yet it is as much a distortion to ignore the wider context as it is to deny the evidence of what transpired.

Saddam Hussein operated a tyrannous regime which killed, according to Human Rights Watch in 2004, more than a quarter of a million Iraqis. Some put the figure much higher. The Labour MP, Ann Clwyd, whose chronicling of the horrors of Saddam’s Iraq dates back to the 1970s, wrote this week of witnessing a mass grave with 10,000 bodies near Babylon and the horrors of his underground prisons and torture chambers.

The revisionist text is that Saddam was a busted flush, no worse than his regional counterparts, should have been left alone, would have disappeared in due course without further threat to anyone .… None of that is disprovable. It just seems highly improbable. We know what Iraq and the region look like without Saddam and it is not a pretty sight. It is rash, and equally unprovable, to make optimistic assumptions about the alternatives.

My own dealings with Iraqi issues began as minister of the state in the Foreign Office under Robin Cook in 2001. Since 1991, Iraq had been subject to United Nations sanctions – not because Saddam was a brutal, warmongering dictator which he certainly was, but specifically to prevent him acquiring the means to again assemble weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons.

I spent a lot of time trying to ensure sanctions did what they were supposed to achieve and no more. This was both for humanitarian reasons and because Saddam was adept at using their existence for propaganda, claiming vast increases in infant mortality because of their effect. At the same time, he refused to access the very substantial funds from the Oil for Food programme. In other words, he used infant mortality and other sufferings of his own people as part of the propaganda drive aganst UN sanctions.

Within weeks of the invasion, the mere suggestion that Saddam had been trying to acquire potent weapons became the subject of all-knowing ridicule. I am sure the imminence of a threat was exaggerated on the basis of misleading intelligence, but I have always found a contradiction between the prolonged consensus in favour of sanctions and subsequent certainty that Saddam Hussein harboured no aspirations to acquire these weapons.

Surely one of the most shocking elements of the Chilcot Report is confirmation that the prime minister was not informed by the head of MI6 that the source of critical “intelligence” about an imminent chemical weapons threat was known by February 2003 to have “lied from the outset”. I don’t know whether it would have influenced the juggernaut if this bombshell had been shared at the 11th hour with our political decision-makers. But it is treasonable if it was not. This “source” revealed himself to the Americans in September 2002 and his testimony became critical to persuading politicians that the chemical weapons threat was real and urgent. To say the least, it would be interesting to know more about the provenance of this intervention and the extent to which his handlers saw it as their role to find “facts” on which to base a pre-ordained conclusion?

Getting rid of Saddam’s regime was a long-term objective of Washington. In 1996, it botched a CIA-backed coup but the ambition did not go away. There were many humane reasons, as well as geopolitical ones, for wanting him gone. However, the protracted presence of that intention makes it all the more astonishing that preparations were so hopeless, in terms of both risk assessment and implementation.

On this, there is no escaping the Chilcot indictment. By far the greater responsibility lies in Washington since it was from there that the lead came and that was where key decisions were taken. I recall meeting one of the leading Iraqi advocates of invasion in the immediate aftermath who was in utter despair over the Americans’ decision to disband the army and police while failing to seal borders with Iran. In his prescient view, these were catastrophic errors.

Chilcot says that the closeness of UK foreign policy to Washington should be reassessed and that is absolutely right. It might reasonably be acknowledged that the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was not the most propitious point at which to implement that principle – in fact, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Too many of those around Tony Blair were too closely intertwined with their American counterparts to exercise critical faculties. I am sure Blair thought he could be a restraining force. In reality, the Americans did what they liked.

Iraq abruptly ended a brief spell in history where humanitarian intervention by external powers had gained a good name – in Sierra Leone, the Balkans and elsewhere. Intervention is again a dirty word. Before assuming this is an undisputed good, we might spare a thought for the “eternal gratitude” of the Kurds and mass graves of Babylon.