UK Politics

Iraq inquiry: Army 'almost seized up' in 2006

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Media captionGen Sir Richard Dannatt: "The desire of the Army to field a division was not huge"

Troop commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan created the "perfect storm" for an overstretched army, a former Army chief has told the Iraq inquiry.

Gen Sir Richard Dannatt said the Ministry of Defence's projections of required troop commitments differed from Army estimates.

He said the Army had come close to "seizing up" in 2006.

Gen Sir Mike Jackson told the inquiry there were too few troops to cope with the aftermath of the invasion.

Gen Dannatt, who became Chief of the General Staff in August 2006, said the Army had a chart showing the projected fall of force levels in Iraq with the projected rise in force levels in Afghanistan from the MoD's point of view.

"We overlaid on that our best estimate of how force levels would continue to stay high in Iraq, and possibly increase, and for us that was the perfect storm," he said.

"We could see that perfect storm coming to fruition in about the middle of 2006, late 2006, and I would contend that it did."

He also told the inquiry that the Military Covenant - which sets out the nation's obligations to its fighting men and women - had, he said, been getting "progressively out of balance" in terms of pay, conditions, accommodation and equipment.

When he took over in 2006 he had warned publicly that the Army, which was taking on the major new commitment in Afghanistan, had been "running hot".

He said: "You can run hot when you are in balance and there is enough oil sloshing around the engine to keep it going. When the oil is thin, or not in sufficient quantity, the engine runs the risk of seizing up.

"I think we were getting quite close to a seizing-up moment in 2006."

'Honeymoon over'

The inquiry is looking at the UK's role in the build-up to the war and the handling of its aftermath, and is expected to publish its report around the end of the year.

Gen Jackson, head of the Army between 2003 and 2006, said the US and UK had underestimated the level of violence that would ensue in the period after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

He said both governments had expected it to be "tolerable" and for a potential "humanitarian disaster" to be more of a problem than a security crisis.

But when security did become a major issue, he said it became clear British troops were "too thin on the ground", adding: "I didn't have confidence that Washington had worked this through."

He said there was an assumption of "we know how to do this" from previous experiences in Northern Ireland and Kosovo, but once the "honeymoon period" was over, things became much more difficult.

"I recall on one occasion going so far [as]... making the suggestion that there's only one way to do this and that is to appoint a minister for Iraq. It didn't find a great deal of favour, I fear," he added.

But despite his concerns, Gen Jackson said he felt "at all costs, we must see this through" in Iraq.

"And I don't think I sensed, on leaving office in the summer of 2006, that we were staring failure in the face."

Gen Jackson also complained about shortages of basic equipment, saying a lack of desert clothing had a "symbolic" effect on the morale of troops.

He said the government did not want "to make it seem as if war was inevitable", so left it until relatively late to begin gathering the necessary equipment for invasion.

Gen Jackson also raised concerns after visiting British forces in Iraq in late 2005 in a report to Gen Sir Michael Walker, then Chief of the Defence Staff.

In the document, newly released by the inquiry, he wrote: "Our support helicopter fleet is creaking badly.

"JHF-I (Joint Helicopter Force Iraq) is struggling to meet its tasks even with rigorous prioritisation. The overall picture is one of an SH (support helicopter) force ill-matched to support current operations. If our SH capability is inadequate, our AT (air transport) fleet is worse."

Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues are coming towards the end of the latest round of public evidence sessions, with former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott due to be the last witness to give evidence this summer on Friday.

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