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Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Disillusionment over Iraq

LONDON -- In March 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair apparently believed that there was an imminent threat that Iraq might use weapons of mass destruction. A majority of British voters were accordingly persuaded that Britain was probably justified in taking part in an attack on the tyrannical regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Most people would like to have seen another United Nations Security Council resolution and many felt that the U.N. inspectors should have been given more time. But there was general recognition that the Iraqi regime had violated previous U.N. resolutions.

The declaration by President Jacques Chirac that France would veto any further U.N. resolution and the frantic efforts of his government with German support to recruit opposition to a new resolution had the unintended effect of strengthening British popular support for the prime minister's resolution.

In Britain, only the Liberal Democrats, a minority party, opposed the war from the beginning, although a number of Conservative and Labour members of Parliament were critical of the government's decision.

They pressed for publication in full of the advice from the attorney general about the legality of the government action. The government refused, despite the resignation of a senior Foreign Office legal adviser who considered that the action was contrary to international law.

The general assumption was that the attorney general's advice had been at the least equivocal. It was also noted that Adm. Michael Boyce, before authorizing British forces to participate in the attack, demanded from the Prime Minister's Office clear confirmation that the action was within international law. The criticisms of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the pope of allied policy on Iraq reinforced some people's doubts about the morality of the attack. However, while antiwar demonstrations attracted significant numbers, they posed no threat to the government. Once British troops were engaged, public opinion rallied behind them.

But the doubts of March 2003 quickly increased amid reports of significant civilian casualties in Iraq, especially in the bombing of Baghdad, although the farcical response of the Iraqi minister of information nicknamed "Comical Ali" and the euphoria over the toppling of the statues of Hussein tended at first to overshadow popular recognition of the sufferings of the Iraqi people.

The general hope was for a quick end to the conflict and the re-establishment of law and order leading to a new democratic regime in Iraq. Sadly it soon became clear that the allied forces were incapable of protecting Iraq's ancient treasures or even hospitals. The sight of American soldiers in tanks sitting by and allowing whole-scale looting caused deep dismay.

As it became clear that the Allies had not thought through their postwar policies for Iraq and as reports poured in of the shambles in the American headquarters as the commanders tried to deal with the myriad problems with troops who had not been trained to understand Arab attitudes, British concerns grew.

The clumsy behavior of raw trigger-happy soldiers facing mobs of newly unemployed Iraqis, the growing number of allied casualties, and the increasing number of Iraqi civilians killed in crossfire with well-armed Iraqi rebels caused widespread dismay in Britain and strong criticism of the allied authorities. There was a general feeling of nausea at the triumphalist way in which Bush's announced victory in Iraq by a melodramatic landing on an aircraft carrier.

The failure to uncover any weapons of mass destruction increased the doubts felt by the British public. As it became clear that the infamous dossier, on which Blair had largely based his case for war, was lacking in credibility, the government were pressed to substantiate their case. It did its best to deflect criticism by attacking the reporting of the BBC, one of whose reporters had suggested that the intelligence dossier had been "sexed up" in response to pressure from the prime minister's press secretary.

A commission was appointed to investigate under a tame judge who duly exonerated the government, but the judge's report failed to allay public disquiet. Indeed, as it did not appear to many to be in line with the evidence given to the inquiry, it raised more questions than it answered and the government has been forced to set up another inquiry into the intelligence on which the dossier was based.

John Scarlett, the chairman of the joint intelligence committee, who took responsibility for the, at best unreliable, dossier, has now been rewarded by being promoted to head Britain's secret intelligence service. The appointment is reported to have left many civil servants speechless.

The British public were pleased when at last Hussein was arrested. The many reports of the cruelties of the regime were thought by many to have justified to a considerable extent the attack on Iraq. At least the Iraqi people had been freed from a satanic regime.

Tragically this justification too has been undermined by the photographs and reports of torture, sexual humiliation and brutality by allied forces, primarily American forces in a Baghdad prison, but accusations have also been made against British forces, and it is feared that at least some of these latter allegations may be substantiated.

There can be no doubt about the revulsion, horror and anger of British people over such inhumanity. Their anger is compounded by reports that the authorities, British and American, had been warned some months ago by the International Red Cross. These human-rights violations cannot, without thorough investigation, be dismissed as the work of a few junior rogue elements. Nor should we take the cynical view that brutality is a part of war and is to be expected of soldiers in a combat zone.

In America, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been forced to apologize publicly, but few Britons regard this as an adequate response and Bush's handling of the war in Iraq is widely condemned. Blair is increasingly under pressure, and he has been subject to much criticism for his apparent support of Bush's endorsement of Sharon's plans in Israel, which are seen by many as prejudicing a fair settlement of the Israel/Palestine conflict. He is increasingly depicted as Bush's poodle and his popularity has plummeted.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who headed the British delegation to the United Nations and was until recently the senior British representative in Iraq, has argued that British forces will need to stay in Iraq at least until 2006 to secure order and that the most important forthcoming date in Iraq will be that of the elections due early next year rather than the handover to an interim Iraqi regime at the end of June.

He is probably right, but the British public are likely to become still more critical of the incompetent policies of the Bush administration in the Middle East.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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