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It was a war that began in extreme controversy and during which the moral reputation of British intelligence and the nation’s armed forces was tarnished for a generation, long after the last of the fighting stopped.
Before a shot was fired in Iraq by the US-led coalition, British intelligence, led by MI6, produced flawed evidence about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, which in turn was simplified and amplified by then prime minister Tony Blair, including in his foreword to the notorious Iraq dossier of September 2002. But it was not true and proven not to be so after the initial invasion was over.
Sir John Chilcot, in his 2016 inquiry, concluded that not only had Blair gone too far but the intelligence community did little to hold Downing St back. Intelligence had become politicised, reflecting an ingrained belief that the Iraqi dictator must have been hiding something.
The intelligence failures lingered long in the memory, prompting widespread scepticism about agency predictions made in the run-up to the war in Ukraine, in particular that Vladimir Putin would, without doubt, order an invasion. But others argue that the impact was more profound than that.
Dan Jarvis, who served as a major in the Parachute Regiment in Iraq and is now an Labour MP, said: “Rather than fading away, the damage done to public trust in 2003 has only become clearer with time. In retrospect it may have been only a milestone in a wider decline, but it has echoes in everything from the Brexit debate to the response to Covid – and the disastrous impunity of Boris Johnson.”
The Saddam regime was defeated in a little over three weeks of conventional military war, and the coalition was often welcomed by Iraqi civilians liberated from a repressive dictatorship. But it was not long before stories of abuse and torture emerged, war crimes that, however isolated, could not readily be dismissed.
Baha Mousa, 26, an Iraqi who was working in a hotel as a receptionist, was detained by British soldiers from the 1st Battalion Queen’s Lancashire Regiment in Basra in September 2003. The case was to become notorious.
Thirty six hours later he was found dead with 93 external injuries, his face bloodied and distorted, his torso with swathes of bruising and “a strangulation line across the throat”, according to AT Williams, who wrote a book about the grisly event.
Nor was it an isolated incident. A 2011 inquiry by Sir William Gage into Mousa’s death said British soldiers inflicted “violent and cowardly” assaults on Iraqi civilians, subjecting them to “gratuitous” kickings and beatings – and that there was widespread ignorance of what was permitted in handling prisoners of war.
There were repeated incidents of hooding – where a bag is thrown over a detainee’s head. The practice was banned in 1972 by Ted Heath, when he was prime minister, but some British soldiers admitted they were not aware of the order, suggesting a failure to enforce standards from the top.
Such accusations, remarkably, paled somewhat in comparison to what happened at the US-run prison at Abu Ghraib in April 2004, where an extraordinary and shameful catalogue of abuse was revealed.
Detainees were tortured and humiliated, often sexually as a bizarre set of photographs revealed. In one, a hooded Iraqi prisoner, with wires attached to his arms, was told he would be electrocuted if he stepped off the box he was standing on. Others showed unclothed prisoners, forced to simulate sex acts; in one case a US solider was photographed behind a pyramid of perhaps seven naked Iraqis.
Abu Ghraib was part of a moral corruption that emerged as the war on terror continued. Some of the issues highlighted went beyond Iraq – as demonstrated by a report from the UK parliament’s intelligence and security committee, published as recently as 2018, which concluded that MI6 officers had on two occasions been party to mistreatment of prisoners, witnessed it on 13 occasions, and benefited from intelligence supplied from people suspected of being tortured nearly 200 times.
The all party committee said that “the UK saw itself as the poor relation to the US” and “was distinctly uncomfortable at the prospect of complaining”. In other cases, MI6 was involved in abductions that led to suspected extremists being tortured, and such was the disgust that Eliza Manningham-Buller, the then head of MI5, complained about MI6’s conduct to Blair and relations between the two agencies went into the deep freeze.
The establishment was reeling, but at one significant point the accusations also went too far. Allegations that British soldiers had murdered insurgents and mutilated their bodies after a firefight in Iraq in May 2004 were dismissed 10 years later by another official investigation, the al-Sweady inquiry. A British human rights lawyer had paid a middleman who found people willing to submit fictitious statements.
The fiasco prompted a dramatic pushback by Conservative ministers. A shutdown of the military unit investigating claims of abuse by British forces in Iraq followed in 2017. “This will be a relief for our soldiers who have had allegations hanging over them for too long,” said defence secretary Michael Fallon.
An effort even followed to introduce an effective amnesty for British soldiers accused of war crimes while serving in Iraq, but the Overseas Operations Act eventually had to be amended to ensure that torture was exempted. But despite all the efforts to sweep the scandals under the carpet, the MoD was still quietly paying out compensation, paying several millions to settle 417 claims in the year to November 2021.
Martyn Day, senior partner at law firm Leigh Day, which brought many of the claims, said “it was depressing to see how commonly abuse was meted out by some British troops in a very casual way to ordinary Iraqis” and accused the UK government of “looked to obfuscate what had happened” by blaming “‘compensation-seeking Iraqis’ and ‘tank-chasing lawyers”.
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