Britain's Iraq War Reckoning

The long-awaited Chilcot report found Britain joined the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein before “peaceful options for disarmament” had been exhausted.

Matt Rourke / AP

What we know:

—Britain’s long-awaited Chilcot report found former Prime Minister Tony Blair joined the U.S.-led invasion before “peaceful options” to disarm Saddam Hussain had been exhausted.

—The report says there was “no imminent threat” from Iraq before the war started and its legal justifications were "far from satisfactory.”

—Parliament is planning two days of debate on the report’s findings.

—In a statement, Blair said he will “accept full responsibility, without exception and without excuse.”

—The full report can be read here.

—We’re live-blogging the major findings, and you can read how it all unfolded below. All updates are in Eastern Standard Time (GMT -5).

4:36 p.m.

The inquiry’s report offers the most comprehensive timeline yet on how the British government’s top lawyer came to support the legal basis for the Iraq War. While it did not weigh in on whether the war itself was lawful, the inquiry described the conditions in which that determination was made as “far from satisfactory.”

First, some quick background. In November 2002, five months before the war began, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1441. It declared Iraq to be in “material breach of its obligations” to disarm under previous resolutions and offered it a “final opportunity to comply.” Both the Blair government and the Bush administration cited it as justification for the war under international law, a conclusion that many legal scholars dispute.

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General at the time, told the inquiry in 2010 he believed a second UN resolution would be necessary to justify military intervention in Iraq until about a month before the war began in March 2003. The inquiry’s report outlines how his thinking evolved towards a green light.

Just a few days after the resolution’s adoption in 2002, Goldsmith told Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff, that he was “not optimistic” about the legality of military action without a second resolution. The next month, Blair’s office asked Goldsmith for a draft of his advice for the prime minister before presenting it to the full Cabinet.

Goldsmith provided it on January 14, writing that Resolution 1441 included “no express authorization” for the use of military force. He also acknowledged the theory that the Security Council could authorize it through means other than a formal resolution, such a statement by the Council’s rotating presidency. Goldsmith also expressed skepticism about the idea that an “unreasonable veto” by one of the Council’s five permanent members could be ignored.

“Despite Lord Goldsmith’s draft advice, Mr. Blair continued to say in public that he would not rule out military action if a further resolution in response to an Iraqi breach was vetoed,” the inquiry said.

While Goldsmith authored the draft so it could eventually be presented to the Cabinet, Blair did not inform other ministers at a January 16 Cabinet meeting on Iraq that he had received legal advice on its legality.

“As the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith was the Government’s Legal Adviser not just the Legal Adviser to Mr. Blair,” the inquiry noted. And although a similar legal dispute was unfolding within the Foreign Office, the inquiry said there was “no evidence that [Foreign Secretary Jack] Straw was aware of Lord Goldsmith’s draft advice before Cabinet on 16 January, although he was aware of Lord Goldsmith’s position.”

One day before Blair was set to meet with Bush on January 31, Goldsmith again sent a letter to Blair reminding him of his stance on whether a second resolution would be required.

“I recognise that arguments can be made to support the view that paragraph 12 of [Resolution 1441] merely requires a Council discussion rather than a further decision,” Goldsmith wrote. “But having considered the arguments on both sides, my view remains that a further decision is required.”

On his copy of the letter, Blair underlined that quote and scribbled in the margin, “I just don’t understand this.”

“That was the third time Lord Goldsmith had felt it necessary to put his advice to Mr. Blair in writing without having been asked to do so; and on this occasion he had been explicitly informed that it was not needed,” the inquiry pointed out.

But Goldsmith’s stance then began to soften over the coming weeks. In early February, he traveled to Washington and discussed the case with the Bush administration’s legal experts. When he returned, he said in a February 12 draft memo he was “prepared to accept that a reasonable case can be made” about Resolution 1441’s authorization. His formal opinion, issued on March 7, made a largely similar point: a second resolution would be preferable, but relying on Resolution 1441 could suffice.

In a statement Wednesday, Lord Goldsmith said the inquiry's report had confirmed the legal interpretation was his "honestly-held, professional opinion."

12:23 p.m.

In addition to his earlier remarks, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has just apologized for his party’s role in the war in a speech in Westminster.

So I now apologize sincerely on behalf of my party for the disastrous decision to go to war in Iraq in March 2003.

That apology is owed first of all to the people of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost and the country is still living with the devastating consequences of the war and the forces it unleashed.

They have paid the greatest price for the most serious foreign policy calamity of the last 60 years.

The apology is also owed to the families of those soldiers who died in Iraq or who have returned home injured or incapacitated.

They did their duty but it was in a conflict they should never have been sent to.

Finally, it is an apology to the millions of British citizens who feel our democracy was traduced and undermined by the way in which the decision to go to war was taken on the basic of secret “I will be with you, whatever” understandings given to the U.S. president that have now been publicly exposed.

10:05 a.m.

David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, says some of the missteps that led to the Iraq war have been addressed in the years since, including the way in which intelligence is assessed and used.

"We cannot turn the clock back," he told Parliament. "But we can ensure that lessons are learned and acted on."

Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the opposition Labour Party who has long been one of the war's most vocal critics, called the invasion "an act of military aggression launched on false pretext."

"By any measure," he said, "the invasion and occupation of Iraq has been for many a catastrophe."

9:50 a.m.

Tony Blair is calling the invasion of Iraq the "hardest, most momentous, most agonizing decision I took in 10 years as British prime minister."

He was reading a prepared statement on the Chilcot report, hours after its release. Here's the rest of his statement:

For that decision today I accept full responsibility, without exception and without excuse. I recognize the division felt by many in our country over the war and in particular I feel deeply and sincerely – in a way that no words can properly convey – the grief and suffering of those who lost ones they loved in Iraq, whether the members of our armed forces, the armed forces of other nations, or Iraqis.

The intelligence assessments made at the time of going to war turned out to be wrong. The aftermath turned out to be more hostile, protracted and bloody than ever we imagined. The coalition planned for one set of ground facts and encountered another, and a nation whose people we wanted to set free and secure from the evil of Saddam, became instead victim to sectarian terrorism.

For all of this I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe.

9:48 a.m.

The inquiry devotes an entire section to Britain’s diplomatic efforts in 2002 and early 2003, in which Blair and his government lobbied both the U.S. to seek a second resolution against Iraq from the United Nations Security Council and the council’s permanent members to grant it. Both efforts ultimately failed before the war began in March 2003. According to the inquiry, this diplomatic failure was caused not by intractable differences, but by an artificial military timetable imposed by Washington.

“In the Inquiry’s view, the diplomatic options had not at that stage been exhausted,” the report says. “Military action was therefore not a last resort.”

The report lays out how Blair’s willingness to abide by the U.S. timetable was largely driven by his eagerness to not damage the “special relationship” between his country and the U.S., which he believed could be used to influence U.S. policy. That influence had clear limits, the inquiry notes. While it says Blair likely influenced Bush to initially seek Security Council approval in late 2002, it also concludes that other “crucial” matters, Blair “did not succeed in changing the approach determined in Washington.”

But was the special relationship really that imperiled? Britain and the U.S. have had stark disagreements on foreign conflicts in the past without undermining the two countries’ close ties, the inquiry observed. It also noted France and Germany had both strongly opposed the U.S.-led invasion, and that neither country suffered permanent diplomatic damage from it.

“Had the UK stood by its differing position on Iraq – which was not an opposed position, but one in which the UK had identified conditions seen as vital by the UK Government – the Inquiry does not consider that this would have led to a fundamental or lasting change in the UK’s relationship with the US,” the report ultimately surmises.

9:29 a.m.

Family members of British soldiers killed in Iraq held a news conference in response to the report's release.

“Now we can turn and say we have got the proof," said Rose Gentle, whose son Gordon was 19 when he was killed. "Twelve years of fighting for my son have been worth it.”

She added: "Now we know where we stand and what we can do. Tony Blair should betaken to court for trial for murder. He can’t get away with this any more.”

Others at the news conference blamed Blair as well.

Mark Thompson, the father of Kevin Thompson who was killed in 2007, said: "We have lost grandchildren. We have lost a daughter-in-law. He’s got everything."

9:08 a.m.

Britain's relationship with the U.S. in the lead up to the war comes under special scrutiny in the report. Indeed, many in the U.K. believe Tony Blair's close relationship with President George W. Bush compelled him to follow the U.S. into the conflict without questioning any of the assumptions made to invade Iraq. But at least one missive from Blair to Bush, included in the report, on the conflict warns that the coming war was not Kosovo, not Afghanistan, "not even the Gulf War." And, Blair adds, he's keen on building a political—if not a military—coalition. But it's the first line of the note that's likely to get most play. Blair writes: "I will be with you, whatever." That line is likely to feed into whatever perception people have about why the U.K. entered the war, which was hugely unpopular in the country.

Here's the note in full:

Chilcot, in his statement, refers specifically to the U.S.-U.K. relationship.
"Mr Blair overestimated his ability to influence US decisions on Iraq," he said. "The UK’s relationship with the US has proved strong enough over time to bear the weight of honest disagreement. It does not require unconditional support where our interests or judgements differ."

In a statement on his website, Blair notes:

The report should lay to rest allegations of bad faith, lies or deceit. Whether people agree or disagree with my decision to take military action against Saddam Hussein; I took it in good faith and in what I believed to be the best interests of the country.

You can read his full statement here.

7:57 a.m.

Sir John Chilcot, in his statement, outlined the U.S. and U.K.’s attempt to win the UN Security Council’s buy-in for an invasion of Iraq. When it became clear that was not going to happen, because “most members of the Security Council could not be convinced that peaceful options to disarm Iraq had been exhausted and that military action was therefore justified,” Blair and Jack Straw, his then foreign secretary, blamed France and claimed to act for the international community “to uphold the authority of the Security Council.”

“In the absence of a majority in support of military action, we consider that the UK was, in fact, undermining the Security Council’s authority,” Chilcot said.

His other main conclusions:

• The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – WMD – were presented with a certainty that was not justified.

• Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. The planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were wholly inadequate.

• The Government failed to achieve its stated objectives.

7:43 a.m.

Some of Blair's most prominent critics, including current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, previously hinted the former prime minister should face a war-crimes investigation. While that aspect of the war is beyond the inquiry’s scope, some of its details could strengthen those calls.

“The circumstances in which it was ultimately decided that there was a legal basis for UK participation were far from satisfactory," the report’s executive summary said.

It also describes how Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General for England and Wales at the time, said the “safer route” would be to seek clearer authorization from the United Nations Security Council before invading. The British government instead relied on Resolution 1441 as its legal justification, a position that Goldsmith later endorsed.

7:11 a.m.

A long-awaited 12-volume report on Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War found former Prime Minister Tony Blair joined the U.S.-led invasion before “peaceful options” to disarm Saddam Hussein had been exhausted.

“It is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on basis of flawed intelligence and assessments,” Sir John Chilcot, the inquiry’s chairman, said Wednesday. “They were not challenged, and they should have been.”

The 2.6-million-word Chilcot report, officially known as the Iraq Inquiry, is longer than all seven volumes of the Harry Potter series combined. It took seven years to complete, longer than the country’s participation in the war itself. Here’s an excerpt from Sir John Chilcot’s statement, which was released Wednesday:

We have concluded that the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.

Blair’s decision to commit British troops to the Iraq war has become the defining moment of his legacy as prime minister. The war was hugely unpopular in the U.K., and as it dragged on, Blair’s popularity suffered. One hundred and seventy-nine Britons died in the war between 2003 and 2009. Blair, who resigned in 2007, has defended his decision to join the U.S.-led conflict that succeeded in ousting Saddam Hussein. At the same time, he has recently acknowledged “mistakes” in the lead-up to the conflict.

The report also has broader implications for Blair’s Labour Party. His successor, Gordon Brown, set up the inquiry in 2009 amid internal party discontent from Labour MPs and grassroots supporters about the war. Its purpose was to provide a narrative of what happened and to offer lessons for the future. Blair was among the 100 witnesses who was interviewed by the inquiry’s members.

Chilcot, the report’s author, told the BBC:

The main expectation that I have is that it will not be possible in future to engage in a military or indeed a diplomatic endeavor on such a scale and of such gravity without really careful challenge analysis and assessment and collective political judgement being applied to it. There are many lessons in the report but that probably is the central one for the future.

Among Blair’s harshest critics will likely be Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party’s leader, who was a backbencher MP during the war and ranked among its highest-profile opponents in Parliament. British newspapers reported earlier this year that Corbyn would call for Blair to be investigated for war crimes after the report’s publication.

But Corbyn also faces his own hour of political peril as Labour moderates, often called “Blairites,” hope to oust him from leadership after the Brexit referendum defeat last month. The Iraq War is a central fissure between the Blairites and Corbyn’s hard-left faction of the party, which strongly opposed the conflict.