LONDON — A sweeping, multi-year inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq War delivered a scathing assessment Wednesday, with investigators blaming the country’s political, military and intelligence leadership for a conflict that could have been avoided and that ended “a very long way from success.”
The findings by a team of British investigators are the culmination of seven years of work in which they were given nearly unfettered access to British documents and witnesses, including memos sent to the White House by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The report spans a breathtaking 2.6 million words — five times longer than “War and Peace” — and addresses nearly every facet of Britain’s decision to jump into the war alongside its American allies in 2003, as well as Britain’s role in Iraq for the next six years.
The findings raised the prospect of legal action against British leaders who held office during the war years. The conclusions also cut deeply into the logic behind Britain’s decision to invade Iraq side-by-side with U.S. troops while other European partners stood strongly opposed.
In exacting detail, the report lays out the flaws in a war initially sold to the public on both sides of the Atlantic as a vital intervention to deprive Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were ever found.
With violence in Iraq still raging — a bombing in Baghdad on Sunday left more than 250 people dead — the inquiry casts the blame widely for a conflict that cost the lives of 179 British troops and, at the time of the British withdrawal in 2009, at least 150,000 Iraqis. To date, more than 4,500 Americans have died in Iraq and more than 32,000 have been wounded.
Much of the report’s sharpest criticism focused on Blair.
Just hours after the report was made public, a somber Blair said he accepted responsibility for the war’s failings and felt “more sorrow and regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe.”
But he also insisted defiantly that he had taken the country to war “in good faith,” and he argued that the report had validated his contention that “there were no lies” from his government preceding the invasion.
“I did it because I thought it was right,” said Blair, the country’s prime minister for a decade.
Blair also maintained, as he has for years, that the world is “a better place without Saddam Hussein.”
Wednesday’s report takes no stand on that question. But it does offer a catalogue of failures that will confirm the beliefs of the war’s most ardent critics.
The report describes British intelligence painting a flawed picture of Iraqi military capacity, with agencies never doubting the existence of weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi leader, it said, posed “no imminent threat” to Britain.
In making their case to the public, Blair and other British officials described the case against Hussein “with a certainty that was not justified.” In their private deliberations, they ignored warnings that the invasion of Iraq could be a boon to Islamist extremists.
Groups such as al-Qaeda gained key footholds amid Iraq’s chaos, and militant offshoots later comprised the foundation for the Islamic State.
The British relied almost exclusively on their American counterparts for postwar planning, then failed to deliver the manpower and resources needed to make good on promises to transform Iraq into a functioning, stable democracy.
In a statement delivered Wednesday in London, the report’s lead author, retired civil servant John Chilcot, said Blair took the country to war “before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.”
Chilcot, speaking at a conference center in central London, was applauded by relatives of British soldiers and others who served during the war. Wiping away tears, family members later praised the inquiry and said it had opened up a pathway to possible legal action against Blair and other British officials responsible for launching the war.
Sarah O’Connor, whose brother, Sgt. Bob O’Connor, was killed in 2005, described Blair as “the world’s worst terrorist.” Roger Bacon, whose son died in 2005 in Iraq, said the report should be used “to ensure that all aspects of the Iraq war fiasco are never repeated again.”
Across the street from the conference center, outside the Palace of Westminster, protesters held aloft signs reading “Bliar” and chanted, “Blair lied, thousands died!”
The report was commissioned by Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, and was originally expected to take a year to complete.
Instead, it took seven amid persistent delays that Chilcot has said reflected his own underestimation of the scale of the challenge involved with assessing Britain’s first invasion and full-scale occupation of a sovereign state since World War II.
The report will give ample ammunition to the war’s toughest critics, including those in Britain who have called for war-crimes charges to be brought against Blair — who now runs a lucrative consulting business that has drawn criticism for working with authoritarian governments in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has suggested he could support such charges, and members of Parliament have already floated the idea of formally censuring Blair.
But the report takes a pass on the issue of Blair’s legal culpability.
Chilcot said the question of whether the war was legal was beyond the scope of his inquiry and could “only be resolved by a properly constituted and internationally recognized court.”
Speaking in the House of Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that Parliament would spend two days next week debating the report’s findings.
Cameron urged politicians to learn the lessons of the inquiry, the first being that “taking the country to war should always be a last resort.”
But Cameron, who voted for the invasion along with a large majority of the Parliament, said it would be wrong to conclude from the inquiry that Britain should try to weaken its alliance with the United States or that military intervention overseas is never justified. “Britain cannot and must not shrink from its role on the world stage,” he said.
Speaking across the aisle from Cameron, Corbyn said the war was “regarded as illegal by the overwhelming weight of international legal opinion” and was “an act of military aggression launched on a false precept.”
The report’s findings, he said, “vindicated” the minority of lawmakers who voted against the invasion in March 2003. The left-wing Corbyn was among them.
Wednesday’s report lands as Britain continues to reckon with the aftermath of its June 23 vote to exit the European Union, an outcome that prompted Cameron’s resignation and that has spawned a mutiny against Corbyn from within his own ranks.
The report does not have a direct bearing on the country’s current political chaos.
But it is likely to revive for many Britons memories of a rush to war that was supported at the time by a majority of the country’s Parliament and public, but that has come to be seen as a disastrous failure and to epitomize betrayal by the nation’s political class.
That loss of faith was exploited last month by campaigners arguing for a British exit from the European Union. “Leave” politicians dismissed the consensus of experts who argued against the departure, calling it an establishment-organized conspiracy on par with the government’s “sexed-up” case for war in Iraq. Cynically minded voters appeared to agree.
At 2.6 million words, the report clocks in at three times the length of the complete works of William Shakespeare, or five times that of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” It includes memos that Blair sent to then-President George W. Bush — though not the replies.
In July 2002, as the case for war was just beginning to gain steam, Blair wrote Bush a note saying, “I will be with you, whatever.”
He then goes on to encourage Bush to “assess bluntly the difficulties. The planning on this and the strategy are the toughest yet. This is not Kosovo. This is not Afghanistan. It is not even the Gulf War.”
Over the next eight months, the report recounts how Blair continued to nudge the United States toward a more cautious approach, insisting on a U.N. Security Council authorization as a prerequisite for launching military action. But when that authorization never came, Blair took the country to war anyway.
The report describes Blair as being excessively concerned with not disappointing his American allies, and it faults him for not recognizing that “a decision not to oppose does not have to be translated into unqualified support.”
The report, however, leaves no doubt that Blair was warned of the dangers of toppling Hussein. A British intelligence report written in the lead-up to the war concluded that Islamist extremist groups such as al-Qaeda represented “by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests” and that the threat would be “heightened by military action against Iraq.”
In a written response to that finding, Blair said he was aware of it but that “I took the view then and take the same view now that to have backed down because of the threat of terrorism would be completely wrong.”
Karla Adam in London and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.