Thirteen years ago I went on my first and my last protest march. Up until then I had been content to watch events unfold from the safety of my couch but this, this was different. My adopted country was going to wage a pre-emptive war on a fellow Arab nation. While I had no love for the tyrant Saddam Hussein, it was obvious to me that he posed no serious threat to the security of the British people. It was equally obvious that many innocent Iraqi civilians were going to be caught in the crossfire. Their lives were too precious to be sacrificed on the altar of some nebulous greater good.
And so I marched. Thousands of others joined me that day on the “Stop the War” march. Our numbers were so great that I hoped politicians in Westminster would sit up and take notice. They didn’t. The war went ahead and it was more destructive and more bloodthirsty than even I had feared. The infrastructure of an entire nation was torn apart. People who once lived secure lives under a cruel dictator now lived in fear of their lives thanks to their benevolent rescuers. This is something that people in the West have long misunderstood. Such were the tales they heard of Saddam Hussein’s viciousness that they imagined a people living downtrodden, miserable lives. Surely then it was right to free them from the evil dictator and bestow on them that wonderful elixir called democracy.
As the daughter of a marriage between a Syrian and a Saudi Arabian, I know what life under dictators looks like. There is no freedom to express political views or to vote to change the leadership of your country. Corruption is rife and people in the high echelons of power can get away with murder, literally. But if you keep your head down under the radar, you can live secure and prosperous lives. Go to school, to university, to work. Enjoy wedding celebrations or dine out at a restaurant of your choice. Invite family or friends to dinner or go shopping for the latest fashions in the local mall. Such were the lives led by many ordinary Iraqis before the war. No doubt it would have been preferable to live in a free and democratic society under the rule of law but was the situation bad enough to justify the destructiveness of war?
Of course, we were told it was not just about getting rid of a cruel dictator and bringing democracy to the people of Iraq. There were those weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that could be mobilised within 45 minutes. There was the increased threat to the West from terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks – although no evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with AlQaeda.
We know now that there were no WMD. Iraq today is a fractured country riddled with sectarian violence. And after seven long years in the making, we now have the Chilcot report into this sad episode in our history. So what have we learned? Well among many other things, we now know that:
- The UK chose to invade Iraq before peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted
- The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s WMDs were presented with a certainty that was not justified.
- Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated and the planning for post-Saddam Iraq was inadequate.
- The Americans were going to invade Iraq no matter what. The UK was powerless to stop them and had to decide whether to join them in this endeavour or to risk the special relationship by insisting on continuing with diplomacy and UN inspections.
I watched Tony Blair’s press conference today, in which he responded to the contents of the Chilcot report. It has been widely reported that he seemed a broken man as he apologised for mistakes made and took responsibility for them. What struck me, however, was his refusal to admit that the decision to go to war had been wrong in the first place. Indeed, he used the example of Syria to demonstrate the dangers of inaction. How much worse would the Arab spring have been with Saddam still in power? I found this unconvincing. One could equally argue that, had there been no Iraq invasion, there might have been more appetite for military action in Syria and that this might have taken the shape of a no-fly zone rather than all out regime change.
We’ll never know what the geopolitical situation in the Middle East would have been today had there been no invasion of Iraq. What we do know is that thousands of people died in this conflict: civilians, British, American and Iraqi soldiers. Perhaps the most important lesson that needs to be learned by our politicians is this: human life is precious. Do not embark on war lightly, without thought for the consequences, and do not treat the lives of ordinary people as pawns in a game of politics.