Chilcot inquiry: What Tony Blair and George W. Bush left behind in Iraq

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Bush and Blair's war in Iraq
02:07 - Source: CNN

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Editor’s Note: CNN International Correspondent Ben Wedeman has lived on and off in the Middle East since the 1970s and has covered Iraq extensively since the 1990s.

Story highlights

After 13 years, the Chilcot inquiry delivers damning verdict on Britain's march to war

But the findings will be of little use to Iraqis living with the consequences

Baghdad, Iraq CNN  — 

“Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators,” read the proclamation to the people of Iraq. These could have been the words of British Prime Minister Tony Blair or President George W. Bush at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

But it dates back to 1917, penned by Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude, the commander of British forces in Iraq. 

The British occupation that followed was messy, though not as messy as its modern U.S.-led version. Then, the people of Iraq waged a bloody insurrection against the British, who, in the process, allegedly used poison gas against, among others, the Kurds in the north. 

If Blair had read his history more carefully he might have taken Britain’s experience as a cautionary tale. Instead, side by side with Bush, he plunged headlong into what fast became a quagmire.

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The Chilcot report – the long-awaited result of Britain’s inquiry into the Iraq War – has delivered a damning verdict against the UK’s role.

What is the Chilcot report?

  • A report on Britain’s role in the Iraq War, including events that led to the conflict and its aftermath
  • It has taken longer to publish than the war actually lasted
  • Commissioned by Britain’s then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009
  • Written by John Chilcot, from the inquiry he chaired between 2009 and 2011
  • The 12-volume, 2.6 million-word report is almost three times as long as the complete works of Shakespeare

  • “Military action in Iraq might have been necessary at some point, but in March 2003 there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein,” John Chilcot, chairman of the inquiry, said Wednesday.

    However the revelations will be of little use to Iraqis now. 

    In the Middle East, grandiose geo-strategic master plans hatched by foreign powers invariably go awry. Iraq is no exception. 

    Just how awry was painfully evident in downtown Baghdad this weekend, in the smoldering ruins left by yet another terrorist attack, where at least 250 were killed in an ISIS truck bombing.

    The distraught people searching for loved ones blown to pieces or burned beyond recognition have nothing to savor in the Iraq that Blair and Bush wrought.

    The false pretenses of Iraq’s ‘liberation’

    Millions of Iraqis have been made homeless by the war against ISIS, and the many displaced or driven into exile during the chaos of the occupation years have nothing to celebrate in this “new” Middle East. 

    Hundreds of thousands have been killed since the 2003 invasion. “Liberation” didn’t work out for them. 

    The pretenses so strenuously pushed by Bush and Blair for the invasion of Iraq have proven utterly false. Whether they were lies or just monumental misjudgments we may never know, but the consequences are plain for all to see. 

    There were no weapons of mass destruction. There is no peace and prosperity in Iraq today. What passes for democracy, slapped together by the U.S. occupation, is fundamentally flawed and dangerously unstable. 

    The invasion of Iraq opened Pandora’s box, out of which flew sectarianism, terrorism and violence, and no one has managed to shove them back inside. Iraqis – Sunni and Shia – fought the U.S.-led coalition and slaughtered one another. Suicide bombings and death squads spread terror throughout the land. 

    What Bush and Blair left behind

    Thirteen years ago, on the eve of the invasion, Blair said: “If we do not confront these twin menaces of rogue states with weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, they will not disappear.” Far from disappearing, terrorism in the form of ISIS has created its own rogue state – in the process redefining terrorism to the point that al Qaeda has condemned it for being too extreme. 

    The entity Bush and Blair helped create, today’s Iraq, is one of the most corrupt countries on earth. It floats on a sea of oil, but little of that wealth trickles down to ordinary people. Water and electricity cuts are commonplace. 

    Last summer, covering the mass of refugees and migrants who were trying to get to Europe, I met dozens of Iraqis who had given up on their country. Stuck on the border with Hungary, Hussain, a 22-year old law student from Karbala, told me: “We will wait here six years if we have to. We have nothing left to lose.” Returning to Iraq, he insisted, was not an option. 

    So was it worth it? There is no unanimity here. Plenty of Iraqi friends reminisce about the good old days of Saddam Hussein, when terrorist bombings were rare, when there were no blast walls and few checkpoints, when you could travel almost anywhere in Baghdad or Iraq without fear of being shot or kidnapped or beheaded.

    There was no freedom of speech, there was no democracy. Saddam ruled by fear, but at least there was rule. When you’ve tasted anarchy – and Iraq has had its fill of it – dictatorship doesn’t look so bad. 

    As my friend Mohamed J. regularly tells me: “If only Saddam could come back from the dead.” 

    How Bush and Blair helped the Kurds

    Others, however, adore the legacy left by Bush and Blair. Earlier this year I was sitting around a campfire in northern Iraq with a group of Kurdish commanders, a short drive from the front lines with ISIS. We were discussing the upcoming U.S. presidential elections. 

    “We love George Bush,” exclaimed one, when I asked who his favorite candidate was. “We wish he could be president again.” 

    “And we’d like Tony Blair back in power, too,” another chimed in. 

    Bush and Blair’s popularity among Kurds isn’t new. I was in the de facto Kurdish capital of Irbil on April 9, 2003 when U.S. troops pulled down Saddam’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square.

    As the news spread around the city, thousands came out to celebrate, waving American flags. There might have been some Union Jacks as well, but I can’t remember.

    “Down, down Saddam! Yes, America! Yes, yes, Bush!” hollered one enthusiastic young man.

    Bush and Blair helped cement Iraqi Kurdistan’s semi-autonomous status, establishing the region’s unofficial separation from the rest of Iraq. And for that the Kurds have overlooked what happened to the rest of Iraq.

    Living – and dying – with the consequences

    Blair might have wanted some of those Kurds to testify before the Chilcot commission, because beyond that corner of Iraq, history may not be so kind.

    Today Bush has become an amateur painter, and ironically, Blair makes money from offering expertise, insight and guidance on the Middle East.

    Apart from the inconvenience and possible embarrassment of the findings of the Chilcot inquiry, Blair no longer has to deal with the quagmire he helped create in Iraq.

    The people of this unlucky land, however, must live – and die – with the consequences.