Philip Hammond says decision to remove supporters of Ba’ath party from army was biggest mistake of post-conflict planning.
The UK has stepped up its criticism of US conduct of the Iraq war, with the foreign secretary saying the single most disastrous mistake was the mass removal of supporters of the Ba’ath party from the Iraqi army, which he claimed led directly to the formation of Islamic State.
Philip Hammond said the move by Paul Bremer, an American diplomat in charge of running Iraq in 2003, to dismantle the country’s army had proved a disastrous mistake, as it had sent 400,000 unemployed soldiers on to the streets.
On Thursday the Chilcot report on the UK’s involvement in Iraq delivered a scathing critique of Tony Blair’s decision to go to war on the basis of bogus intelligence and a catastrophic lack of planning for the aftermath of the invasion.
Hammond’s direct link between Bremer’s decision and the rise of Isis contrasted with Blair’s claim on Thursday that the world was a better place as a result of the removal of Saddam Hussein.
“I can regret the mistakes and I can regret many things about it, but I genuinely believe not just that we acted out of good motives and I did what I did out of good faith, but I sincerely believe that we would be in a worse position if we hadn’t acted that way. I may be completely wrong about that,” Blair said.
He claimed that if Saddam had been left in power, “he would have gone back to his [weapons of mass destruction] programmes again”. Had the Iraqi president still been in power during the Arab spring, he would have tried to fight on, as Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has done, Blair said.
Although the US and the UK remain strong allies, Iraq has strained the relationship. The US military blames the UK for failing to pacify the southern part of Iraq and pulling out too hastily. The UK blames the US for setting in train the process of removing from office members of the Ba’ath party who had helped put Saddam in power, which included dismantling the Iraqi army.
Bremer defended his decision, saying he had only meant for a tiny percentage of the army to be removed.
Hammond, giving evidence to the Commons foreign affairs committee, said: “Many of the problems we see in Iraq today stem from that disastrous decision to dismantle the Iraqi army and embark on a programme of de-Ba’athification.
“That was the big mistake of post-conflict planning. If we had gone a different way afterwards, we might have been able to see a different outcome.”
The influx of professional soldiers into groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq and later Isis had increased the threat that the organisations posed, he said. “It is clear a significant number of former Ba’athist officers have formed the professional core of Daesh [Isis] in Syria and Iraq, and have given that organisation the military capability it has shown in conducting its operations.”
Pressed to accept that the UK had not stayed in Iraq long enough, Hammond said: “Maybe it was too great an ambition to dismantle quite a sophisticated country with a long-established civilisation, traditions and culture of its own, and to recreate a mid-Atlantic construct of what government should look like, often going against the grain of local culture and tradition.”
Changes to decision making under David Cameron, including the creation of the national security council in 2010, made it less likely that the shortcomings identified by the Chilcot report would be repeated, he added.
Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the UK ambassador to the UN in the run-up to the invasion, also rounded on the US, saying the UK had been prematurely pushed into war, and UN weapons inspectors should have been given more time.
The Chilcot report revealed frustration bordering on contempt in the UK government at US inter-agency wrangles that undermined the reconstruction process.
A Department for International Development note dated 15 April 2003 described ORHA, the first reconstruction body in Iraq, as “incredibly awful – badly conceived, badly managed, US-driven, failing and incapable of delivering to our timeframes.”
A note from Blair’s private secretary on 2 May 2003 described ORHA as “not up the job. It has no effective management. There is no clear understanding of who is making policy.”
There was more opprobrium heaped on ORHA in a note from Blair’s representative in Iraq, Sir John Sawers, dated 11 May 2003. “An unbelievable mess. No leadership, no strategy, no coordination, no structure and inaccessible to ordinary Iraqis,” it said.
There was also criticism of the US military, with a cabinet committee ministerial note in June 2013 saying: “An overarching problem of US inter-agency wrangles, US generals refusing to deploy on foot in Baghdad for fear of of attacks, an unwillingness to operate at night and an inadequate understanding of the city.”
By Patrick Wintour & Ewen MacAskill