Feature: Back to Iraq

The controversy surrounding events leading up to the war in Iraq is set to reopen with the publication of an explosive new book published this week.

The Way of the World, by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, documents how Washington ignored British assurances Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction in its desperate push for war.

“The Brits wanted to avoid war – which was what was driving them,” Rob Richer, a former CIA officer in the Near East division, told the author. “Bush wanted to go to war in Iraq from the very first days he was in office.”

It’s a thoroughly different picture to one we had in 2003, when Tony Blair’s speeches and frantic diplomacy gave every indication of a man on the same page as president Bush – albeit with more of a thing about getting the UN on board.

But Mr Suskind’s book paints a different picture. It’s understood the prime minister sent one of MI6’s top agents, Michael Shipster, to the Middle East. It was just three months before the invasion, and he was tasked with digging up information which could stop the war.

In that, he was successful. Mr Shipster held a secret meeting with the head of Iraqi Intelligence, Tahir Jalil Habbush, in Jordan. The meeting has been independently verified by Migel Inkster, former assistant director of MI6. Mr Inkster also confirms the contents of the meeting, in which the source tells Mr Shipster there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

On the basis of that meeting, Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of British Intelligence, drew up the Habbush report – a document detailing what Mr Shipster had discovered. Saddam ended his nuclear programme in 1991. Saddam ended his chemical weapon programme in the same year. Saddam ended his biological weapon programme in 1996.

Sir Richard then flew to Washington and presented the report to George Tenet, the director of the CIA. Mr Tenet then briefed president Bush and Condoleezza Rice – then Bush’s security adviser – of its contents. And then Washington buried it.

Talking to Mr Suskind, Sir Richard gives his opinion of what happened with the sort of clarity only retired security officials enjoy.

“The problem was the Cheney crowd was in too much of a hurry, really,” he said. “Bush never resisted them quite strongly enough.”

So what does this tell us? Well, it confirms a couple of thing, and complicates a couple of others.

For a start, it confirms what we knew about Washington’s desire for war. The evidence all point in one direction: Nothing and no-one could have stopped Washington going to war. But it also presents Britain’s motivations and actions in a different light.

The traditional narrative is that Mr Blair signed up to war very early on out of a belief he could shape the way events would unfold. He forced president Bush to go through the UN – unsuccessfully as it turned out – and then kept to the commitment he had made to him when operation ‘shock and awe’ was launched.

Mr Suskind’s book paints a slightly different picture. There’s no question Britain signed up to the war in an effort to modify the terms in which it did or did not take place. But now we have a more comforting narrative – from a British perspective – of frantic behind the scenes attempts to prevent war and drag the Americans back from the brink.

These different stories aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s quite possible Britain promised to follow America into war if it came and then desperately tried to cover several bases at once: Finding evidence to prevent war, trying to secure UN approval if war did happen, working out a military strategy with the Americans regardless of whatever else was going on and – yes – producing dodgy and reprehensible dossiers to convince the British people to support what was happening.

We can be sure of one thing though. Of those various options came the worst possible outcome. The war could not be stopped, the UN resisted approval, the war cost hundreds of thousands – perhaps even a million – lives and the British public’s trust in the government and the security services hit an all-time low.

Ian Dunt