Iraq fell into chaos after US ignored Blair envoy’s advice not to sack all Baathists
|Tuesday, December 15,2009 19:22|
Tony Blair’s top diplomat in Baghdad was ignored when he urged the Americans not to sack 25,000 Baathist officials, the Iraq inquiry was told yesterday.
Sir John Sawers, Special Representative in Baghdad at the time, now the head of MI6, testified to the chaos he saw in post-invasion Iraq on arriving in the capital in early May 2003.
He said that the de-Baathification programme and the disbandment of the Iraqi Army, which many critics claim triggered the Sunni insurgency, had been agreed in Washington — apparently without prior consultation with Britain. Sir John said that the Government had supported plans to remove the top three tiers of the Baathist regime — 5,000 officials — but not the 25,000 lower-grade Iraqis on the fourth tier of the regime, many of whom were teachers.
He told the inquiry that he had argued against the decision but that Paul Bremer, the US official in charge of the civilian effort in Iraq, ignored him. Mr Bremer’s decision had been “stitched up in Washington”, according to Sir Roderic Lyne, a member of the inquiry panel and a former Ambassador to Moscow.
Sir John insisted that neither the sacking of the Baathists nor the disbanding of the Iraqi Army provoked the insurgency but he agreed that the decisions “compounded” the violence that erupted.
A position on de-Baathification was essential, Sir John said. “The reconstruction of the Iraq Government would have been impossible without it,” he said. The Iraqi people, freed of Saddam Hussein and his cronies, would not have tolerated having his Baathist followers surviving intact, he said. “The public mood was virulently and vitriolically anti-Saddam.”
He said that the de-Baathification process went too far, and subsequently some of the sacked Baathists, especially the teachers, had to be brought back. That the Iraqi Army had never been properly defeated was a problem when it came to its disbandment.
“They didn’t make a last stand, they just melted away,” Sir John said.
“I don’t think it’s credible to lay the roots of the insurgency on the decision to disband the army. The Iraqi Army didn’t exist,” he said.
Asked if Britain was left out of the consultations about the postwar phase of the Iraq campaign, Sir John said: “I don’t think our views — my views — were entirely ignored.” A senior American official, Walter Slocombe, had passed through London to discuss Iraq with the British Government but there had been no talk then of a wholesale de-Baathification programme.
Sir John, who had been Mr Blair’s foreign policy adviser in 2001, when George W. Bush became US President, said that the postwar efforts in Iraq in the spring of 2003 were wholly inadequate. At that stage a retired US general, Jay Garner, was in charge of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. Sir Roderic described it as a “shambles”.
“I was very disappointed by the quality of the senior figures, who were mainly retired Vietnam-era US generals,” Sir John said.
Sir John disclosed that General Sir Mike Jackson, then head of the Army, had suggested sending British paratroopers to Baghdad to help the Americans, who were struggling to maintain security. “Part of the problem was the posture of the US Army in their tanks, in their Darth Vader kit with the wrap-around sunglasses and helmets and flak jackets. There was no real rapport between the US Army and ordinary citizens,” he said. Though the idea of sending paras was warmly received by the Americans and No 10, it was vetoed by service chiefs.
Sir John was asked whether the change of regime in Baghdad had come up in early discussions between Mr Blair and Mr Bush in 2001.
He replied: “I think there are lots of countries where we would like to see a change in regime but that doesn’t mean that one actively pursues policies in that direction.”
When Mr Blair and Mr Bush had their first meeting — at Camp David in February 2001 — “aggressive regime change [in Iraq] was never given serious consideration”.
He said that the approach adopted with Saddam was based on methods that had led to the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia the previous year. Among the proposals considered was support for opposition groups and indicting Saddam for war crimes during the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Sir John described Saddam as “one of the last absolute dictators”, who many thought continued to pose a threat because of his perceived weapons of mass destruction programme and his attacks on US and British pilots patrolling Iraq no-fly zones.
At that stage in the discussions about Iraq the focus was on how to sharpen the sanctions against Saddam to prevent him acquiring dual-use components for his weapons programme.
“Tony Blair’s maxim on foreign policy was that if you can’t solve it, you have to manage it,” Sir John said.
The inquiry before Sir John Chilcot will continue on Monday.