What do UK Iraqis make of the Chilcot Iraq inquiry?

By Claire Heald
BBC News

Image caption,
Outside, looking in: Many UK Iraqis want to shift the focus from Chilcot to Iraq

The inquiry into the 2003 Iraq war has drawn much heat and analysis as it examines the conflict, its run-up and aftermath. But as it resumes, what do Iraqis living in the UK make of it?

When Tony Blair gave evidence to the Iraq inquiry, the panel's questions were probing and the six-hour session intense.

Sir John Chilcot and his committee questioned his decision to take the UK to war in 2003, his dealings with coalition ally US President George W Bush and what he had learned from the chaotic fallout.

But as the former prime minister - the most high-profile of the politicians, Whitehall mandarins and lawyers to come before the inquiry - faced the panel, tones were measured.

Had he come face to face with exiled Iraqis in west London, however, it's likely the reception he faced would have been more passionate.

Words digested

After a break for the UK general election, the Iraq inquiry is reconvening to hear more evidence at the QEII conference centre just off Parliament Square.

Former UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, former Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth and two previous heads of the army - General Sir Mike Jackson and General Sir Richard Dannatt - are among those who will be called to the inquiry in its coming sessions.

What witnesses say there has been digested, along with fish, salad and pitta bread, across town at the community centre lunch of the UK's Iraqi Association.

For guests, gone are the early days of the conflict when many exiled Iraqis felt war was the price to pay for Saddam's removal.

Now, days after a series of bomb attacks killed more than 100 people in Iraq, there is red-hot anger, resignation, and a feeling that a third examination of aspects of the war, after the Hutton and Butler reports, is a waste of the £2.2m inquiry cost so far.

"It's no use to ask them now, 'What's the war for?" says Jinan Maki, a 67-year-old grandmother, economist and exile of the last 10 years, as she finishes lunch.

"Tony Blair's a very bad man. He destroyed the country. He should rebuild the country."

She is not alone in her view here that the inquiry is pointless and diverts money and minds from the real issue - rebuilding a country damaged by war, in-fighting and a coalition with no post-invasion plan.

But the Iraqi Association's youth worker Hashim Ali offers a more optimistic view.

For him, the so-called big days of the inquiry - with a former prime minister giving evidence - are an "impressive indicator" of functioning democracy.

"It was very good for the Iraqis and Iraqi British to see the head of the government called to account for his decision," he says.

But for others that accountability is not enough.

As Jabbar Hasan, director of the Iraqi Association, puts it: "If they made Iraq into the paradise they promised, no-one would talk of this inquiry.

"What's the purpose of finding out whether this war was legal or not - are you going to prosecute the people who decided, the hundreds of MPs who voted for it?"

'Rats like dogs'

Instead, he says, the focus should be on the "disaster" which happened after the war - the lack of a post-war strategy which allowed insurgencies to grow in the power vacuum, destroying infrastructure, civil society and killing thousands.

"What happened after the war was the disaster to us," he says.

"Oil revenues are put at billions a year, but we don't have medical facilities like MRI.

"Each rat is as big as a dog, sewers are destroyed, water is only on for a few hours in the day, it's not good quality, it's not safe to wash yourself."

A major part of the Iraq inquiry's remit is to look into the planning for the aftermath of the war.

Daily reality

The Iraqis at their meeting in Hammersmith have enjoyed a pre-lunch talk on health services in the borough - the kind of infrastructure they can only dream of, should there be enough foreign investment and an end to corruption in their homeland.

More pressing for them than talk in Westminster about events in 2003 is the struggle their relatives face in going about day-to-day life in Iraq now.

Kidnappings and violence have reduced, but the society is still armed after armies and militias were disbanded.

There is great pessimism that rebuilding can be delivered in the future. The country is in limbo after 7 March general elections failed to deliver a clear decision on a new government.

Talks to resolve the situation grind on amid recounts and violent protests from ordinary Iraqis over the breakdown in services such as the electricity supply.

Mr Ali, the youth worker in London, lost a brother under Saddam but can speak now of nephews and nieces in Iraq who, despite the strife with militias and corruption, feel the inconclusive March election in Iraq was "the greatest step in Iraq's history".

'Death on the road'

As Mrs Maki says, Britons living in a stable democracy might have some inkling of the impact of a lack of leadership: "In Britain there was no government for a few days after the election. In Iraq, there's been none for almost three months."

"I want to build a country. Iraq wasn't like this before. It was a good country, a stable country. We had security, even under Saddam Hussein, we lived in peace.

"Now, everybody they kill for nothing. I'm not young but I've never seen my country in such a condition.

"I feel very angry when I see the pictures on the television. It looks like Afghanistan now. I didn't like Saddam Hussein but under him you didn't see death on the road."

Tug towards homeland

On the table in the Iraqi Association's meeting rooms are flyers promoting passenger flights to Baghdad.

They have increased in number and come down in price, allowing exiles to visit their families and entertain the idea of taking their skills home to work - corruption, safety and opportunities permitting, that is.

But the association says they also bring a new wave of migrants. Last year there were 845 asylum applications to the UK from Iraq and they are still arriving - although the UK government has begun to deport failed asylum seekers back to Iraq.

There is also real fear among exiled Iraqis. Some are reluctant to give their full name or be photographed for fear of drawing unwanted attention to families at home.

Many have lost relatives since the conflict began - Mrs Maki's two nephews were killed in attacks.

She says: "My 27-year-old nephew was killed by some terrorists. He was working in a money exchange shop and they killed him and his friends working together as clerks."

One woman, Khawlh, says she worries for her siblings in Baghdad. Her cousin was killed in a car bomb, leaving five children fatherless.

"I want to go back and visit but Iraq is still not safe," she says. "Life is so difficult, there's bombs everywhere."

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