Iraq inquiry: Prescott brings curtain down in style

Lord Prescott Lord Prescott was doubtful about the quality of Iraq intelligence

It has been a long hot summer at the Iraq inquiry.

In the wake of the general election in May and the change of government, public interest in the work of the inquiry has waned significantly.

However, the hearings ended on a lively and thoroughly entertaining note when Lord Prescott, the former deputy prime minister was summoned to give evidence.

He had no call for diplomatic language to describe some of the characters in this narrative.

Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney-general was "not a very happy bunny" when coming under pressure from ministers to judge whether the war was legal.

Clare Short, the former development secretary, was not prone to making passing comments "out of the side of her mouth" when she was in disagreement.... "she was more out-front".

Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador who was uncomplimentary about John Prescott in evidence last December, was "the man with the red socks".

And as for Saddam Hussein.... Prescott was "not a fan".

'True leadership'

Questioned about how closely he was involved in the decision making in the run up to war, he insisted, with a grin, that he was "on the sofa all the time" in Tony Blair's den at Number 10, joking that "I even took a photograph of the sofa when I left".

But he also revealed that he had serious doubts about the pre-war intelligence, some of which seemed to him little more than "tittle tattle". Nevertheless, he explained, this was sometimes the nature of intelligence.

Start Quote

He was an utterly ruthless, brutal man who sat with a revolver in his pocket”

End Quote Hans Blix on Saddam Hussein

He was pressed repeatedly on why he had gone along with the war.

"None of us were happy..... you can't be happy about going to war", he explained.

But he said he would take the same action again.

"It's fashionable to be critical of Tony Blair ... but no-one took the decision to go to war lightly. I saw him agonise over each death. True leadership is not about hindsight, it's about vision, compassion and courage".

Earlier in the week, there was a sizeable audience when the UN's former chief weapons inspector, Dr Hans Blix, came to testify.

'illegal war'

Mr Blix was the first foreign national to give evidence to the inquiry in the UK.

Now aged 82, the mild-mannered former Swedish diplomat seemed to relish the chance to tell the story of his involvement in the ultimately futile search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Blix confirmed that it was now known that Saddam Hussein ordered the destruction of WMD in 1991. A large part of the arsenal was destroyed unilaterally by the Iraqis without the knowledge of international inspectors.

So the UN's search for weapons went on until the eve of war in March 2003.

The former weapons inspector had wanted more time to carry out his work in Iraq.

He also told the inquiry he had doubts about the intelligence, describing the sources used by Washington and London as "poor".

And he questioned the judgement of George Bush and Tony Blair. And he thought the Americans were "high on military", adopting "a very presumptuous attitude" towards the UN. He said that by March 2003, the military timetable was out of sync with the diplomatic timetable. The war was "virtually unstoppable", and the UK was "a prisoner on the train".

He concluded his evidence by stating unequivocally that he felt the invasion of Iraq had been an illegal war.

'Misjudged'

Hans Blix never met Saddam Hussein, but he was asked by the inquiry for an assessment of the Iraqi dictator.

Start Quote

We were getting quite close to a seizing up moment in 2006”

End Quote General Sir Richard Dannatt

"He was an utterly ruthless, brutal man who sat with a revolver in his pocket and would shoot you across the table if you were there.....I think he misjudged it at the end".

General Sir Mike Jackson and General Sir Richard Dannatt both served as army chiefs during the period of Britain's involvement in Iraq. Somewhat to the surprise of the inquiry committee, it was revealed that they had not had routine contact with Mr Blair during his time at Number 10.

Protocol dictated that the Defence Secretary and the Chief of the Defence Staff maintained direct contact with No 10. Dannatt told the inquiry that he only had one meeting with Blair, and that was just before the prime minister left office in 2007.

Dannatt's evidence was damning. He described an army that had been overstretched by balancing the competing needs of Iraq and Afghanistan. Likening it to an engine running hot on too little oil, he said: "we were getting quite close to a seizing up moment in 2006".

The failure to find an adequate replacement for the Snatch Land Rovers that were vulnerable to roadside bombs, was "a deficiency in leadership and energy", Dannatt went on.

He was also sharply critical of soldiers' pay, their accommodation and medical arrangements. It led him to conclude that in 2006, "morale in general terms was fragile".

Sir Mike Jackson is another general renowned for his plain speaking.

'Failure'

He highlighted the shortage of helicopters and drew particular attention to eight Chinooks that were stuck in a hanger at Boscombe Down for years.

"There had been a most dreadful mess-up on their procurement and they were not deemed to be airworthy", Jackson said.

Declassified extracts of reports show that after visiting Iraq in October 2005, Jackson wrote: "Though there was no sense of defeatism in theatre, the possibility of strategic failure was mentioned in earnest on this visit more than on any before".

However, asked by the panel whether he thought the situation had been recoverable, Jackson replied "Yes".

On his retirement in the summer of 2006, he said he had not sensed they were "staring failure in the face".

A year to the day since the inquiry was launched, Sir John Chilcot has signalled that some witnesses may need to be recalled in the late autumn, and the committee still hopes to visit Iraq.

Sir John says they intend to report "around the turn of the year".

The questions then are simple: what will the final report conclude about Britain's involvement in Iraq, and will it make any difference?

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